I suspect much of the reason that I, like many writers, need editing is because the act of writing and telling a story is such an immersive, mental experience. As we write, we exquisitely picture our characters, their demeanors, their states of mind and their tones as they speak and react to others. We picture their surroundings in minute detail—every rose bush, crack in the sidewalk or reflection in a pane of glass—and know what or who is around the corner. At the same time, we are aware that all those writerly pixels may or may not work in service of the story. Too much bogs down the action; too little sacrifices the visual experience which brings the reader into the story and identification with the character. The “fresh eyes” of an editor or knowledgeable beta reader are of great assistance in determining the optimum balance of detail vs. action, (i.e., as adjusted for the writer’s awareness of the editor’s or reader’s own literary values.)
Speaking of fresh eyes, ever notice how vicious we can be editing our own work after it’s been in a drawer for a while? “How in the hell did I write that? Strike it!” “Nobody cares how much research I did! Delete.” “This dialogue is going nowhere. Expunge.” Why didn’t we know those things at first blush? (See pgh. 1).
When I decided to write fiction, I carefully read all the well-known “how-to” books. I still have about four feet of shelf space filled with them. Yet, the best writing advice I ever got was, “Just write your damned book.” The how-to books described the elements of storytelling, but like most advice, were struck dumb by the question, “Well, yeah, but how do I do that?” Similarly, I imagine a primer on painting would say: “This is a brush, this is a canvas, these are paints, here’s a color wheel, apply paint to canvas.”
My latest endeavor in pursuit of craft is to take a cue from the great Philadelphia architect, Louis Kahn, aka, the brick whisperer. “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ And you say to brick, ‘Look, I want one, too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.’ And then you say: ‘What do you think of that, brick?’ Brick says: ‘I like an arch.'”
Applied to us, the anecdote suggests we should not only tell our stories but listen to them. Ask as we are writing, “What do you want, story?” (We know the story bricks—stakes, tension, rising action, obstacles, mystery, etc.) If we truly let the story talk to us, it will say, “I want tension,” and we will say, “Yes, but this description is beautiful writing,” and it will say, “I want tension.”
Only then, when we acutely listen to the story, will we be able to strike, delete, or expunge as needed and do much of the editor’s job before it gets to her desk. And, for those of us gentle of spirit, it’s far less violent than to “kill your darlings.”