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To Be or Not To Be: The Art of Close Editing

I just finished reading two books, in which the authors, very different stylists, both avoided the repetitive usage of the verbs “to be” and “to have” as well as other overdone usages of sentence structure and sentence subjects. They dazzled.

One, Annie Dillard’s triumphant latest novel The Maytrees, lays down line after line, precise, poetic, thick as slabs of homemade, whole grain bread:

Sometimes now Lou searched old albums to test her proposition that nothing so compels a woman as the boyhood of the man she loves. She saw a snapshot of boy Maytree in cap and knickers dwarfed by his cross-eyed father on a wharf. In the prints, Maytree’s cap’s shadow blacked most of his face. Here again he crouched on the beach, as at a starting block, between his hairy mother and his visibly half-dead grandmother, in a wind harsh with that present’s brine. In those prints she saw unease in the boy, as if he had been scanning the offing for the man.

Notice, too, no excess articles: ” in cap and knickers.” But “blacked”! Now that’s a verb.

And for contrast, we go to Junot Diaz’s Drown. I’d read a couple of the stories. One I taught in a creative writing course and another a student had brought in to class. But it was not until I adored The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that I plucked my first edition hard-cover (bought back when that was the only edition available) of Drown from the shelf and devoured it. I think I’d convinced myself that the hype probably had it wrong; instead, I was wrong about the hype.

Check it out, looking again at the mastery of verbs:

    He’s tired and aching but he looks out over the valley, and the way the land curves away to hide itself reminds him of the way Lou hides his dominoes when they play. Go, she says. Before your father comes out.
    He knows what happens when his father comes out. He pulls on his mask and feels the fleas stirring in the cloth. When she turns her back, he hides, blending into the weeks. He watches his mother hold Pesao’s head gently under the faucet and when the water finally urges out from the pipe Pesao yells as if he’s been given a present or a wish come true.

“Urges” is not a typo; it’s Diaz’s twist.

None of these sentences eats its own tail, crushing meaning, curling in on itself. Neither do they plod, predicting each other. I’ve not picked the best passages or any in particular. I’ve merely leafed through, finding something to put down for you as representative of the whole.

I’ve just finished a pass through the novel I wrote at the end of 2007, starting in NaNoWriMo. The pleasure of editing is that it bolsters the writer, assured that these sentences can be revisited and strengthened. She can

replace “to be” and “to have” with better verbs,

flip the subject of the sentence,

cut excess articles,

move adverbs into verbs and adjectives into nouns by choosing stronger words.

Metaphors can be brought through a sentence, so that the verb alludes to the metaphor, too.

Cliché’s can be tweaked or excised.

Slogging through close editing reminds me that the first draft just needs to get on the page; it’s easier to fix it than to get it right in the first place, at least for me. I get, at the bone, that writing is rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting.

The good news about the ninety-nine percent perspiration–the secret news–is that the hard work pleasures the mind and the body, which want to pump, push and ache. The doubts and misery about the one percent inspiration melt in the face of the methodical effort that can turn out a perfectly juicy sentence.

This week, my revision course begins with Reading as a Stranger. I just posted the lecture and am reminded that anyone with a legitimate call to writing starts out (and continues on) as a reader first. Getting to be an ace reader of your own work rewards the inner reader that put you in the middle of this writing mess in the first place.

Oh–and I am going to get my monthly “writing tips” newsletter out this week, though there’s been both hell and high water, so if you want to get that in your email box (not more than once a month), sign up in the right side margin of my web site.

And if you have nothing to revise? Get something down. The worse it is, the easier it will be to make it better later . . .

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I like the examples you used, though I would ask for an example with "to be" and "to have" in them in order to contrast and draw a better comparrison. As to your advice about just getting the writing down, it works very well for a lot of writers, but my problem is that I have trouble leaving writing on the page that I don't like. I am often going back a few paragraphs as I write for a number of reasons (refind a thread, fined a word, and etc), but I can't just then move on if I see something in them I don't like. It naws at me until I change it. That said, even though I edit as I write I still go back and do a number of revisions. I suppose it is just my process. To end, I recently received a letter from Donald Hall, and he said (to my amazement because he seems like such a competent writer) that he will revise prose 25 times and poems upwards of 100 (I've described this in a few other places so please forgive my repetitiveness). For the impatient, this seems like it would take far too long to get any writing out the door (especially if one has to work at a full time job to pay the bills). Best, James

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Thanks for this extremely meaty blog entry.

Your writing prowess (is) declares itself blatantly, and you must already (be) rank as a most consummate editor. Yet, Shakespeare might have fumbled with "To or not to, that is the question."

Elizabeth, yours is now one of my must-read blogs.

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To or Not To

I guess Ol' Will could wander the existentialist path without fear of the likes of me! I note the potential double meaning of "rank"! Thanks for the great comment, Dennis!

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Bad Writing

James--Thanks for the request: I'll work on culling examples of weaker writing, too. It's usually found in early draft material--my own and others.' I understand that everybody has his or her own process, and my number one rule is, if it's working, don't mess with it. But I have to say that editing while writing seems to me a bit like having a conversation with your dentist while her hands are in your mouth. It renders ineffective both activities, the talking and the teeth fixing, the writing and the editing. But again, if it works for you, more power to you. As for those countless revisions, I think Hall is a competent writer because of that extra care, no? That's the good news: smooth, confident, strong writing comes not of inspiration but in the hard work that follows. The impatient tend to get a lot of writing out the door, but most of it comes right back in . . .