Editors are human beings — a statement which may surprise some.
Upon reading a piece of work, an editor, as a reader, is as inclined to feel emotional responses, develop expectations, and to have opinions as any other reader. But in the type of editing known as Controlled Editing, the feedback given to the writer is strictly limited. Controlled Editing and Guided Editing usually work together.
To what is Controlled Editing limited?
It depends upon the overall nature of the work as understood from the earlier step known as a Listening Edit, which we looked at last time. An editor who 'listens' to a work until he or she understands it conceptually may have much to say about it, but in a Controlled Edit he or she says only that which pertains to the writer’s central message or theme.
How does that work in practice?
Let’s say as an editor you have read over a short story about a young girl who meets a strange young man in a rather odd wintry setting. The young man leads her into the snowy woods and they find an old piano lodged between two trees, decaying and dilapidated, but possessing enough of its earlier virtues to tap out a song using worn keys. The story I am referring to exists — it’s called ‘Missing Notes’ and appears in Issue Three of the Inner Circle Writers’ Magazine. I’m using it as an example, because it is not a straightforward tale: it has many layers of complexity and symbolism. An editor, reading it, might develop a range of ideas about it and might fall into the trap of giving the writer — in this case, author Alexander Marshall — all that feedback at once. But in a Controlled Edit, it is the editor’s task to highlight the story’s core, the beating heart at its centre, and to respond to that alone.
Not only that, but the job in a Controlled Edit is often to reveal to the writer himself or herself what that core is.
Arguably, most of the woes that writers face in terms of completing their own work to a powerful and effective level, and then in terms of marketing it to others, stems from them not fully realising what their own work is about. They have, in many cases, compiled a story as a result of ‘visiting’ their imaginations; they have allowed a stream of images, words, characters, events, to pour forth onto the page; and then they have ‘neatened this up’ and called a story ‘finished’ without ever having examined it at a conceptual level. An editor trained in Fictivity first takes a piece and ‘listens’ to it, hopefully obtaining on a first reading a whole variety of information about it, ranging from technical to conceptual. Then, under a Controlled Edit, the editor zooms in on the core.
The core of the above tale about the girl in the wintry wood is character — human nature, the human condition, especially as it is revealed in the kind of relationship the girl has with her father (as well as with herself). By indicating that to the author, a particular result should be obtained: either the author knew exactly what he was doing as he penned the tale and will welcome this core being pointed out (as it shows that he was successful in communicating it) or he will suddenly realise what it was that pulled the tale, with all its images, dialogue and characters, together from the depths of his imagination, and feel both relieved and in awe of the creative process.
In trying to understand this, it might help to view a work of fiction as a communication: at its heart is a single message or concept, but surrounding that heart are a number of other factors — images, ideas, characters, events, and so forth, all the wonderful components which go into making the thing a story rather than just a simple communication. Writers are very often bedazzled by the whole package themselves, even though they wrote the thing, and fail to spot exactly what the essence of their own work is. Often that essence is difficult to put into words other than through the tale as a whole, but it is usually possible to capture something of it in a brief description.
Controlled Editing is the skill of doing just that: capturing the essence of a story and then communicating it back to the writer. It has been a matter of long experience that writers who haven't had pleasant experiences with editors found that this was partly because the editor said too much and didn’t grasp the heart of their work — even when they themselves hadn’t really grasped that heart in full. As soon as Controlled Editing took place, the writer felt that he or she had been heard, that the core of what they were trying to say had been understood — and that can be a powerful experience.
An editor trying to do Controlled Editing with a writer but failing will be seen to be rambling on and not really helping the writer at all. In the above example, an editor could have pointed out the use of Marshall’s imagery, his deftness with dialogue, his understanding of character, the unusualness of the setting, and a whole host of other factors, all of which would have been perfectly valid strengths of that story — but all of which only lightly touch upon its core. As soon as a Controlled Edit isolates the core of the story, everything else falls into place. It’s a bit like spotting the sun shining at the centre of a mini-solar system: once it has been isolated, it’s easy to see how everything else in that system has its place in orbit around the central premise.
A story doesn’t have to be ‘deep’ or ‘literary’ to merit this kind of approach: even a light-hearted comic piece has the same principles at work. Comedy, by its very nature, has a powerful ‘through-line’ or what we might call a ‘core joke’ — other things play off that, just as they do in adventure stories, tragedies, or other kinds of fiction.
Once an editor has established what a piece of work is about, and given precise feedback about its core to the writer, the next step of Guided Editing can begin. We’ll look at that next time.