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.

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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