Editing in the Twenty-First Century

One thing I wished we talked about as writers is the historically unprecedented opportunity we now have to endlessly edit our work. Given that writers tend to be a sensitive, reactive, thoughtful, and ever-so-slightly insecure group of worker bees, it’s really a surprise that no one’s thought to babysit our interactions with our word processors. We should have Word for Writers, a software program that sends up alerts when we’ve rewritten the same chapter twenty times, or futzed with the same sentence a hundred times, or our time spent staring at the screen is inversely proportional to the time it takes to delete a 20,000 word document in its entirety. “Are you sure you want to do that?” might be adjusted to add: “Maybe you want to sleep on it?” or “Did your mother just call with edits on your latest draft?”

As if we didn’t struggle enough with shaping 80,000+ words into a story. Or 80 into a decent poem.

This might just be one of those things that is best combated with awareness. One of my favorite ways to bring the reality of editing throughout the ages home is to pick up one of the many volumes available today that reveal a canonical writer’s drafts. While these resources probably make Nabokov and Faulkner spin in their graves, I have no trouble appropriating them if they help to keep my own liferaft afloat. Because what they show me is the magical intersection of human error and stumbling with the emergence of the kind of true and lasting music so many of us which to achieve in our own writing. And in the process, they remind me that it’s not how many times you revise your work that determines whether or not it will sing; it’s how you learn to talk back to it and adjust it — not disassemble it — to find its heart. Because more often than not, these works remind me of the work of archaeologists, not demolitioners. They represent the patient sifting through seemingly dull or worthless materials to reveal timeless significance.

But I have to admit that this is only one of a few tools I have to combat the siren call of word processing mania, and I sometimes forget it’s there. So I ask you: How do you fight back against the temptation to slash and burn through your drafts — in the word processing arena, or elsewhere?

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