Writerly Wednesday–Editing

Editing is equally important to writing as, well, writing. Anyone can bang out a string of words into computer. But do they mean anything? Do they mean what you want them to mean? Does that meaning connect with your reader?

A lot of writers, myself included, are intimidated by editing. It takes a lot of time and effort. Editing 100,000 words of text isn’t the work of a few hours. It’s the work of a few days or weeks. It’s also intimidating to realize that what you wrote might not be any good.

But that’s okay, because you can fix it. You just can’t be afraid to do it.

I consider myself a decent self-editor. I’ve got grammar down pat. I’m good at non-cliched descriptions. My dialogue generally flows nicely. I usually hack away at my own words until they say what I want them to. But I–yes, even I–don’t always know exactly why something just doesn’t work. Sometimes, good writing is a bit like porn: you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

Take, for example, the paragraph I worked on today. Everett is packing up his stuff to get out of town as fast as he can because one of his friends has murdered another. Here’s how the paragraph began:

The sight of Uriah’s dead body had reminded him of his mother’s cold, pale face as she lay in her bed with open eyes staring at the ceiling. An hour earlier, she had been reading him scripture. She had kissed him on the top of the head where his curls parted, and sent him off to play. When he came back with his rubber ball in hand, he found her stiff and lifeless as a wax doll. He’d been too young to understand that she’d been ill for weeks beforehand. Uriah’s body, too, had seemed puppet-like as it jostled in the back of the wagon.

And this is how it ended up:

His thoughts jumped to Uriah’s body, which had already begun to stiffen as it bounced along in the back of the wagon. The image was eerie and familiar. He thought of his mother, as lifeless as a wax doll, her eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling over her head. Not an hour earlier, she’d kissed him on the top of his head where his curls parted and sent him out to play. When he returned with his rubber ball in hand, she was gone, and he’d been left without mother or father.

Honestly, I’m still not entirely satisfied. I wasn’t sure what it was that didn’t work for me with the first paragraph. But I’m pretty sure now that it was the fact that we jump all over the place–Uriah’s body a few hours before the “present” moment, then his mother’s dead face, then his mother reading Scripture to him when he was a boy, then his mother sending him out to play, then him finding her dead body, then her lingering illness prior to her death, then Uriah again. I did bring it back around to Uriah, but the jumps in time weren’t working. It doesn’t help that the entire paragraph is “the past”. Everett is remembering Uriah’s body, which in turn reminded him of his mother.

The second paragraph jumps around, too, and leaves out a bit of information. We lose the Scripture and the lingering illness. But we add an image of Uriah’s body going into rigor mortis and the fact that Uriah was orphaned by his mother’s death. I also tried to avoid “had” as much as possible by writing the bit about his mother’s death in simple past tense (“her eyes staring”, “he returned”, and “she was gone” as opposed to “her eyes had stared”, “he had returned,” and “she had been gone”). It still jumps around a bit, and it seems a clunky way to clue our readers into the fact that Everett’s mother is dead, but I think my second attempt gets at least a passing grade, unless someone wants to object.


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