The Artful Edit by Susan Bell

Susan BellIn my last blog post three days ago we explored Susan Bell’s ideas about macro edits. Today we pick up her master-class on detailed editing and her ideas about transitions.

The Details: Micro-editing

"I read slowly, because when I read . . . read first for the story, such as it may be, and then I go back over the page to see how the author got his effects, if he got them, or why he failed, if he did not get them.” The micro-edit, more than the macro, demands an unhurried pace. Are you a natural macro- or micro-editor? Figure out if your strength is in the large picture or the details. Fitzgerald was a natural micro-editor. The Great Gatsby, in earlier draft, displayed micro-mistakes: cliché, pedestrian language, generic and inauthentic dialogue. Fitzgerald edited his prose until virtually every phrase meant something essential and sounded fresh. Language. Our true voice—that is, one unalloyed by mimicry or pretension—is what gives our writing its dignity. “Nothing” says O’Hara, “could so quickly cast doubt on, and even destroy, an author’s characters as bad dialogue.”


Last sentence: . . . but my mind veers inflexibly towards the particular.
Transitional sentence that begins the next paragraph: “Here are some particulars.” continuation

Scene reads:

I think he was afraid they would dart down a side street and out of his life forever.
But they didn’t.


As you read, ask yourself if in places you feel abandoned by the author. This may mean you didn’t achieve a smooth or sensible transition; and instead have created a lapse that jolts a reader outside the story.

Master Class

Writing can be so weighted down that it cannot lift off into a trance. We write into a void, we edit into a universe, however ravaged it may be. The reassurance we feel at having something to work with goes far to explain why editing is, in one important sense, easier than writing. Being somewhere is less lonely and frightening than being nowhere. Collaborative editing in the visual arts illuminates the vital balance between being certain and being able to let go of what we were certain of. Walter Murch: film and sound editor. He uses editing to, among other things, rein in his material to let the audience itself connect the dots. Suddenly, when the German officer is ready to act, there is silence. Then, to make things even more disconcerting, just as the officer is committing real violence, he turns the sound on and the image off. See-saw, with one element up and the other down, then the opposite. Might a writer edit sound and image similarly? What you do as an editor is search for patterns, at both the superficial and deeper levels. Milan Kundera writes in The Art of the Novel “Encompassing the complexity of existence in the modern world demands a technique of ellipsis, of condensation. Otherwise you fall into the trap of endless length. . . . When you reach the end of a book you should still find it possible to remember the beginning.” Trust one well-chosen detail to do the work of ten. Would this single image reverberate more if I removed the other images around it? Could this simple descriptive word, placed just so, lead the reader to a new idea, or perhaps several? Murch: “Rather than listen to the sound itself, I listen to the space in which the sound is contained.”

Sante: Sometimes—and this is when writing becomes miraculous, even for an atheist—I get the next sentence dictated to me, which means, generally, that I hear its exact rhythm before I know what the words be that compose it.

Mitch Epstein: photographer: It is advisable, then, not just to edit more slowly the first time around, but to keep anything you suspect might have later value. Writers do well to keep a file of their most intriguing unused sentences and insights. Journals fulfill this function in a random fashion, but a more organized filing of your literary bits—with files fashioned after photographic archives, tabbed for instance, character, landscape, dialogue. How important it is for an artist to hold equally in mind two seeming opposites when he edits: certainty and flexibility. Epstein’s ability not to give up on an idea he was sure of and yet be open to a new interpretation of it.

Caponegro: I’d always write out loud. When I got that opening, I would repeat it out loud, over and over and over . . . because it was so important to me.
The leap from individual essays to book-length narrative can be daunting.

Paratactic form: a series of short, simple sentences.
Anna Jardine, on a recent essay: Repetitions were deleted or questioned; unnecessary words were deleted; rhythms that were slightly off were made more elegant and less awkward.
The New Yorker: one unfortunate result of both the Shawn and the Ross reigns was that some writers “internalized the magazine’s approach and saw their prose lose loveliness, individuality, and grace as a result.” When writing for the magazine, one automatically censors audacious phrases lest they should be demolished by the inquisitorial logicians on W. 43rd St. The self-censorship Tynan describes mocks the very idea of the writer’s voice. An editor’s job includes setting a tone for a writer’s working life. To free him artistically.

Often you can fix a scene at point M by redoing something at point F, which is a very interesting aspect of editing.

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