The First Cut is the Deepest: Thoughts about Editing, the Morning After #writingwednesdays

I have just come out of a marathon editing session. I am a fairly prolific writer. This is my 890th post on A Pilgrim in Narnia, which is conservatively around 500,000 words, perhaps as much as 750,000. When I am in the mood to remind myself about my place in the universe, I remember that’s about as long as J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings, or the uncut version of Stephen King‘s The Stand, or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. To be fair, that’s also as long as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, so that reminds me that there are worse ways to spend a half-million words than blogging.

But that’s not all. I have published at least 40 or 50 articles or book chapters, written hundreds of lectures, sermons, and devotionals, and filled a few volumes of journals. I have seven book manuscripts mouldering on my hard drive, and who knows how many false starts, shorts stories, and poems with an audience of one. I’m pretty good at creating content. I love writing.

But it is starting to dawn on me that I don’t love editing.

I always thought I was okay with this critical aspect of writing. Writing is editing, as the old truism goes. Stephen King‘s On Writing was pretty influential to me. King’s goal in editing is to cut 10% on the second draft, and I have worked on that principle for the last decade or so.

It is also a principle I try to get my students to see, and I often design a project for my grad students that is incredibly–almost impossibly–concise. I am reasonably good at producing drafts that are (mostly) error-free (except homonyms–altar/alter, peek/peak, extent/extant–and my tendency to use commas as if I am speaking; I am a public speaker, after all).  I have a decent facility or logic and a good sense of rhythm, so my writing is usually clear and sometimes evocative.

But I have had a couple of experiences that have made me think I am probably self-deluded.

The first is the nature of the feedback that I’ve gotten from the one middle-grade novel that has gotten some attention from publishers, published authors, agents, and beta readers. I’m lucky that I have gotten pretty solid feedback on a piece and have worked on it for a few years. But last summer when I dug out the feedback from various sources, I noticed a trend. While all the advice and criticism is contradictory, it has a twinned theme: I have not balanced simplicity and creativity in such a way as to let my great characters be the front of the story. Really, unnecessary obscurity and a couple of plot holes have fatally tripped up my characters.

Well and good, I can attend to that. But my lesson for editing is this: Though I have gone through that novel draft a dozen times with a red pen, I don’t think I have ever really torn the draft apart. I was always revising, and not really rewriting.

My second lesson has come in my recent gruelling PhD thesis session. I have been working on this project since 2011, registering for the PhD in 2013. This is it, really. I am near the end. But I am at the point where my “prolific” writing has put me in a terrifying position. I have been writing for years, producing perhaps 200,000 words just for this project. But a thesis is a very peculiar thing. It is like writing a book, but a book written for a handful of people–supervisors and external examiners. While you are writing with a view to the book that will follow, you have to demonstrate a certain skillset as a PhD student that is subtly different than what a general public would want to see.

In writing a PhD, you have to demonstrate, essentially, that you have engaged with the college of scholars in your field to produce a coherent, credible, and original work of scholarship that demonstrates that you are among the world’s leading thinkers in your area and that your research advances the field of knowledge.

And you have to do it in a very concise form. In my case, the word count limit is 100,000 words, including footnotes. That means I have had to cut my work in half as I moved toward my first full draft.

Some of this was relatively easy to cut. I wrote what was essentially a “Prolegomena” to the study of C.S. Lewis’ thought, including the way that he approached texts, writing, and theology. That hit the trash bin first. I have spent the last few years working pretty hard on Lewis’ chronology a writer, so in my writing, I have always contextualized Lewis’ work. Those sorts of nuances had to fall out, as well as most of the biographical content.

Two other cuts were harder for me. The first was that my work was originally framed for a certain context, so that I was setting Lewis up as an aid to evangelical self-critique, to help us reshape our thought to root it more deeply in theology, scripture, and Christian practice. That might make a good book down the road, but it didn’t make a good PhD thesis (for me). I had also begun writing in such a way that my own life and experience was part of the “data” for study. This is a credible way to do research in my field (theology and literature), but I was not able to make it work in the constraints of the project.

Moving this material out–as I was constantly writing new material to respond to my supervisor’s concerns and the need of the project–left me a draft of about 135,000 words, without a conclusion. Still pretty long. In March, I added about 14,000 new words as I was cutting. As I had an April 8th draft deadline, I woke up early on April 1st for a serious 8-day writing and editing marathon. My goal was to cut 28,000 words by April 8th to provide my reader a reasonable draft for critique. I have a writing spreadsheet where I tally my word counts, but I decided to build it for this period as a word-cut tool. I gave myself word-cut goals and then tracked my progress (digress?).

I’m pleased to say that I was successful. I met almost all my daily targets and brought my draft to 108,128 words when I submitted it Monday night (technically Tuesday morning). Goodness, though, this was tough. I am exhausted as I drift back into the normal pattern of life (marking this week, back to the draft next week). I don’t really have words to describe how hard that was.

My first lesson in editing was that I am often revising rather than rewriting. My second lesson is that I am far too precious about my work, too close to it. We all know we should “kill our darlings,” but I think my attachment to my work is far deeper than this. I’m not sure I very often come to the point of seeing my work critically, as an outsider. In working on my thesis editing, where I need not just to revise but to cut whole sections and reconfigure the project to communicate a single argument where all things serve that argument, I have had to change my perspective. Word count is the limitation but not the vision of my work.

In the pressure of my current moment, I have changed from “how do I make this shorter and better?” to stepping outside and asking this question: “How could I help this thinker communicate his central thesis more concisely in a way that honours the organic connection between his prose and his propositions?” It isn’t an elegant vision statement for editing, but it is working for me. Anticipating that my readers will suggest a few pages of additions, I still have to cut the thesis by 10%, as it stands. This is my new goal for the next draft, thinking of myself not as a writer editing his work but as an editor trying to make an author shine.

I made fun of myself for blogging above, but it has probably been the most critical factor in my improvement as a writer up until the last year or so. I think that I am seeing another evolution in my writing. I hope this shift in perspective will help address the two lacunae in my writing, which are the connected realities that I tend to revise instead of rewrite and that I am too close to my work. This is not so much a technique as an entire shift in the way that I work.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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28 Responses to The First Cut is the Deepest: Thoughts about Editing, the Morning After #writingwednesdays

  1. H.P. says:

    I never had a problem with homonyms until I started teaching.

    Like

  2. Aonghus Fallon says:

    How do you distinguish between revising and rewriting, Brenton? Just wondering.

    Like

    • Oh yes, well, perhaps that wasn’t terribly clear. By revise I mean trimming, clarifying, adjusting, word changes, grammar, that sort of thing. By rewrite, I mean large-scale structural changes or even newly writing the core content as if it was new content.
      Does that make sense? In this piece, several times I have opened up a new file and started as if fresh, but bringing in chunks from the old file.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. j says:

    Godspeed. May the Spirit make your “footsteps” on this journey sure; may He give you all conviction that each edit and re-write is *done.*

    Like

  4. hannaheag says:

    Hi Brenton,

    I just wanted to say that I said a prayer for your thesis editing and defense process today. I remember how hard large chunks of my own PhD were, and how much the prayers of the saints and the good wishes of those around me meant (and still mean, even years later).

    Best of luck as you finish, and I’m excited about your thesis being part of the scholarly conversation on Lewis!

    Hannah (InterVarsity Emerging Scholars Network Interim Associate Director)

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Steve says:

    The biggest problem with editing my own writing is that I know what I meant to say, and so tend to miss it. You go through it ten times and then you spot the error you missed at the moment it emerges from the printer.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. joviator says:

    Being too close to the work is unavoidable with dissertations. In my case, I hadn’t done anything else for the last six years so I was closer to my thesis than to my shadow.

    Like

  7. Jeannette says:

    As edifying as the insight with which you end this post undoubtably is,” I tend to revise instead of rewrite and that I am too close to my work” I found this other kernel you had gathered from commonality in diverse feedback to be even more potent: “While all the advice and criticism is contradictory, it has its hard a twinned theme: I have not balanced simplicity and creativity in such a way as to let my great characters be the front of the story.” It looks like autocorrect may have had its way with you in that sentence, but I still heard what you are saying and want to hear it for myself. Thank you.

    Like

  8. lolalwilcox says:

    My thesis was “Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Medieval Concept of Free Will”. My thesis advisor approved “original work” but left in the middle; the new advisor did not approve “original work” and I spent another year researching to meet her standards. What I learned was not to write for me – I had to view the entire work from her perspective. The shift cut the thesis length in half. Your experiences blend with mine, and I have new language to describe what I learned. Thanks.

    Like

    • Oh, thanks for the note! That’s a hard story, but goodness … if it wasn’t for your prof and your flexibility and hard work, it could have gone really badly. It has done in many, many cases.

      Like

  9. Joe R. Christopher says:

    For what it’s worth, through the years I’ve had at least two essays rejected as contributions to books because they were too long. (I’ve decided that I dislike assignments where I’m not given a word length. Of course, it no doubt was my fault for not asking.) And, at least once (when I was writing on CSL and modern fiction) I had to cut mention of some modern novels he had read because I had used up my wordage on some more significant (in my opinion) modern fiction he had read.

    Like

    • Thanks for the note Joe. You have had a massive output over all these years. It isn’t many weeks when I’m in the deep gathering phase when I don’t run across something you wrote. Thanks for all you have done!

      Like

  10. L.A. Smith says:

    Oh man, that’s tough. I feel your pain. I had to cut about half the words from the first draft of my book. But I think cutting fiction is perhaps easier than for non-fiction, especially in your context of a PhD. I had a lot of unnecessary description that I could get rid of, once I looked at it more critically. But still, having to “kill your darlings” is just not easy. Being able to be objective as you need to be is really difficult. Good luck with it all – hope you find success!

    Like

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  12. Dorothea says:

    Others have already said most of what I wanted to. I’ve decided rewriting is easier than revising, any day, but the revising is very important and I wish you all the best as you head into the final stretch!

    Like

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