The Purpose of Editing
It is not the purpose of editing to reconstruct the writer’s story. The purpose of editing is to delete from the existing work those elements which have resulted in the distortion, misrepresentation or non-communication of the writer’s central ideas and images, and to restore in its entirety the proper working function of the writer’s vision of the story. Even more succinctly put, an editor’s role is to continually connect or re-connect the writer with his or her own conception of the story.
Writers create things which are contrary to the communication of their vision. Often they don’t perceive it that way. But the transmission of a vision, whether it is simple or complex, of necessity involves that that vision be broken down in various ways into words, symbols, rhythms, styles, images and so forth. Even for the most practised author, it is difficult to sustain the core of a vision through all the steps needed to mould that vision into the form of a story. In the process of doing so, dilutions, deviations, errors enter in, ranging from the most mechanical typographical level of mistakes which a proofreader detects and fixes, to the grandest and most subtle departures from a theme. Every single instance of the alteration of a writer’s original idea has its exact causation a moment of absence of the inner cohesive vision. These moments occur frequently for any normal writer in any conventional environment: they are unavoidable.
Editing consists of discovering or re-discovering them, finding the moment of absence of vision which corresponds to each one, and placing the data therein discovered at the disposal of the writer so that restoration, reinvigoration and rehabilitation can occur.
There’s a parallel here with the artist, sketching a picture from life.
As an artist picks up a pencil and attempts to draw an image of something - whether from a photograph, or from something real in the environment - two things are immediately in contention: one is the visual perception of the thing being drawn, whatever it is; the other is the artist’s mental apprehension of that thing. Thus, in drawing an eye, someone attempting a sketch can see the actual eye in front of them, with its patchwork of shades and variations in shape and light, and they also have something in their minds telling them more or less unconsciously that what they are looking at is an ‘eye’. Beginning artists often struggle as these two ‘voices’ strive to achieve mastery over the motion of the hand: one urge is to move the pencil so that it exactly captures the light and dark, the subtle degrees of difference in shape, the way in which patches of the object being drawn blend together to form something recognisably ‘eye-like’; the other urge constantly threatens to take over with its foreknowledge and experience of what an eye ‘looks like’. Instead of drawing what is in front of them, new artists often unconsciously permit their minds to guide their hands and so end up with an interpretation of what they see, instead of a representation. Their minds have told them to draw ‘an eye’ and so that is what their hands and fingers have done with the pencil, making circular lines and so on. More experienced or practised artists have learned to ignore the clamour from their minds and simply copy what is there, as closely as they can.
It’s the same for writers, except that the thing that they are trying to ‘draw’ isn’t usually in front of them like a photograph or an object - it exists as an idea or collection of ideas, images and emotions in their heads. This makes the distinction more difficult. They attempt to sit down and capture something, and for many the same two things are in contention as exist for the sketch artist. Instead of a visual perception of the thing being drawn, though, writers often have only vague notions of their stories as cohesive wholes. Then, as they begin work to ‘chisel out’ those stories from the mental ‘stones’ in which they are buried in their imaginations, in rushes the voice of the mind telling them what it thinks they are trying to do. In writing a story about lovers battling to assert their love in the middle of a war, for example, a writer might ‘see’ and feel the story that he or she wants to write, with its patchwork of emotions and incidents and symbols and variations in tone, but he or she also has something telling him or her more or less unconsciously that what they are looking at is a ‘love story’. In pour the conventions, the tropes, and possibly the clichés.
Beginning writers, like artists, can struggle as these two ‘voices’ struggle to take command over the motion of the hand across the keyboard: one voice orders the typing of one conception, creating words and sentences and scenes that exactly apprehend the joy and the sorrow, the subtle degrees of difference in tone, the way in which small incidents blend together to form something recognisably story-like; while the other jumps in with its ‘I know best’ attitude of what a love story ‘looks like’. Instead of writing the original passionate vision, the writer comes up with a predictable model love story, in which conventions are used in an ordinary way to convey predictable feelings and outcomes.
The result can vary from a work of genius, in which the storyteller has found the heart of the tale and carved it out for all to see, to a run-of-the-mill work of characterless and colourless humdrum. Compare Emily Brönte's Wuthering Heights with the latest Mills & Boon pot-boiler.
I see this most evidently in the writing of fantasy, though this can arise in any genre or form of story. Many writers have clearly sat down to write a ‘fantasy’ with their minds already full of the tropes of that genre: swords, knights, strange beasts, magic, and the full mediaeval backdrop common to the genre. But instead of striving to chisel out a vision, their eventual finished tale is cluttered with predictable paraphernalia and plot tropes. They have not yet learned to ignore the voices of the mind and pay attention instead to the vision of the inner eye.
It’s not an easy thing to do, moulding a story by paying attention to that quiet inner conception. Most often, writers are influenced by the more voluble voice demanding that they write the standard form of something. What greatly helps is knowing how master authors have risen above the standard forms to create great works of art. That's one of the things talked about in my book, How Stories Really Work.