The Craft of Editing
Laurie D. Graham: Jan, you and I have worked together a number of times now in a few different editorial capacities, and I count myself lucky to have edited your work. I’ve learned a lot from doing so. I know you to be a very precise writer of both poetry and prose: when we’ve worked together on your pieces for Brick, you’ve had such a clear sense of what your sentences are doing, or how your stanzas move, and I’m curious to know what your own editing process looks like. Do you think of editing your own work as an aspect of writing, or is it something different? Also, how would you describe your first drafts?
Jan Zwicky: I count myself lucky to have been edited by you, Laurie! You have excellent intuitions, and a superbly liberating way of posing queries. Wonderfully non-authoritarian. You open clarifying perspectives on my work that I find extremely valuable.
My first drafts, regardless of genre, are “essays” in the strict sense: attempts to get it right. There is always something that has declared itself as wanting to be communicated, something to which I’m trying to respond. I hear people talk about writing in order to find out what they mean. That’s not the case for me; for me, writing is a struggle to use the medium of language to convey a meaning I’ve already glimpsed. Because I don’t think in words, getting a first draft is nearly always a fraught and effortful experience.
Writing—all communication—has a moral dimension for me. I’ve said I’m trying to respond; that means I’m responsible for getting something right, and I’m deeply aware of the potential for failure. For this reason, I usually feel relief once there is something I can recognize as a first draft. Editing is definitely part of the writing process for me—but I feel like I’m over the summit and into a new watershed. Sometimes there are other summits to be traversed, but as long as I have that first draft, they do not seem as arduous. They are not overshadowed by the possibility of complete failure.
Can you say more about what you’ve learned from editing other people’s work? Not my work in particular, but the process in general? Or do you learn quite distinct things from different editorial projects?
Graham: Brick has a really vigorous and thorough editing process, which, as far as I’m aware, is not common in the realm of literary journals. And I haven’t had any formal editorial training: I’ve learned how to do it by doing it. Primarily, editing has made me a better reader, a more perceptive reader. The amount of substantive and line-level editing Brick does has taught me how to parse a text—a process that is different for every piece of writing—to see what it’s after, to watch all its parts moving together, and to understand how I might be helpful in terms of expressing its full intention on the page.
Editing is also diplomacy work, and it too has an intense moral dimension. A negotiation takes place between writer and editor—or actually, editors, plural: a piece will pass through many hands over the course of the editing process. And I prefer to approach this as a thinking-through-together rather than a series of demands and concessions. Writer and editor on the same side of the desk, instead of opposite from one another.
I always have multiple lines of thought in my head when I edit, trying to keep multiple intentions in mind while determining what might be best, what might be possible. It’s a positioning I find very complex. There’s for sure steam coming out of my ears while I’m doing it.
What do you appreciate most in an outside editorial eye? When is an editor most helpful to you?
Zwicky: What I want to do when I write (or converse, or play music) is to become a conduit for communication. Something in the world has been able to break through the usual round of vision-clouding preoccupation and I’ve actually seen it, or heard it, or smelt it, or thought it, or remembered it; my first response to this awareness is a kind of exhilaration, an erasing gratitude, or a grief-tinged joy; but then, often—not always, but often—I’ll feel a pressure to communicate what I’ve glimpsed. How, though? As I mentioned, I’ve always had a difficult relationship with language. I have to translate what I see and think into words. And something always gets lost in that translation. That’s where an editor can greatly assist me. By giving me a clear account of their reactions—especially places where they tripped up, did a double-take, or had to retrace their steps, and places where they felt clearly and unequivocally addressed—I’m better able to triangulate among my efforts at translation, the things or events that have spoken to me, and the humans I’m trying to communicate with. I can unclog the conduit that I wish my writing to be.
Not that I always agree with an editor’s diagnosis. There are times when I can tell it’s not possible—for me, anyway—to hew closer to the thought or experience I’m trying to get on the page. But often enough, placing that knowledge alongside a good editor’s query will tell me that something in the set-up, farther back, has to change. I’ve got the viewing blind positioned as precisely as it can be positioned, but I’ve put the path to it through a bog, and when people get there, they’re out of sorts, preoccupied with their wet, muddy feet. Better build a boardwalk!
Because I don’t think in words, linguistic rhythm and tone are especially important to me. By tone, I mean both the kind that accumulates culturally (the connotations of a phrase and the way it’s usually uttered—with an exclamation point, say, or a laugh, or a shrug) and the physical sounds of words (the pitches of vowels, the sharpness or roundedness of consonants, their music). Etymology is also part of tone: does the word come from the Anglo-Saxon roots of English or the Greco-Latin overlay? Rhythm, though it’s often treated as a distinct part of verse composition, is yet another component of tone: it affects our sense of urgency, and of pleasure. All of this applies as much to prose as it does to poetry.
The best editors—for me—are people who perceive the components of complex conceptual or emotional structures and who are also alert to the ways in which rhythm and tone inflect meaning.
Does any of this echo your own experience?
Graham: Oh yes. The music of language, its rhythm and tone, is particularly loud in my ear, always (a function of my being a poet, no doubt, and having sat at a piano for a fair portion of my life). My favourite part of editing is being able to listen closely to the intricate harmonic structures writers produce. This is maybe what I’m referring to when I say that every piece of writing needs to be parsed differently. Everyone’s expressing a different music, and it’s the editor’s task to be able to follow along with the score.
I’m the sort who can get a tune stuck in her head for weeks on end, till it feels like an illness that needs treating. Perhaps the trickiest part of editing for me is to keep other people’s music from completely pervading my whole listening. If I start thinking I know best what a piece of writing needs, wants, or intends, I know I’ve got the illness, so to speak. Editing then might also be an act of maintaining the integrity of the position outside of the piece of writing. Because, as you say, that’s what’s actually valuable to the writer, to offer that outside ear.
Do you keep getting ideas for edits to your work after it’s published? I’ve seen writers give readings from their new books with pencils in their hands, altering their text as they read. Is this the case for you, or do you more often reach the point where the editing is very clearly done?
Zwicky: I do sometimes sense at great remove from the original “finished” draft that a change is required. In the cases I can bring to mind, some ten or twenty years down the road I’ve recognized a line break was wrong, and in a couple of cases I’ve heard that phrases have been extra to my purpose. Those realizations came effortlessly; I felt puzzled I hadn’t seen what needed to be done at the time. In none of these cases was I reading aloud in public, but if I had been, then, yes, I could’ve taken out a pencil and changed the text on the fly.
Then there’s Wittgenstein Elegies. For the second edition, I rewrote the end of the third section, made other smaller changes throughout, and completely reconceived how to try to communicate the effect of multiple-voices-within-a-single-textual-throw. (Elegies is not really a play or an oratorio, nor is it monovocal. I have a powerful kinaesthetic sense of how the voice functions, but it’s been a challenge to convey it on the page.) That was a huge job. You know how they say renovations are more work than building from scratch? I can attest to that in terms of houses and writing both.
That’s because when I’m editing I have to sink back in. Except for those rare moments I mentioned, I edit from inside the text rather than outside. Wittgenstein speaks of a mistaken approach to understanding language as making us feel as though we had to mend a torn spider’s web with our fingers. Maybe he’s right that when you have that sensation doing philosophy, you know you’re on the wrong track; but it seems to me an excruciatingly accurate description of what has to happen if you’re going to change a finished piece in any significant way. For me, a finished piece is very like a spider’s web: everything is connected to everything else. A little quiver here sets up a little quiver there. If you’re going to cut a paragraph or a sentence, or add one, you’ve got to make sure that all the threads in the result are seamlessly connected up. Because—ah! this is important, this is probably what I’m struggling to say—that connectedness is usually not something of which a reader is consciously aware. From the outside—not making the text but reading it—what a reader should be aware of is what the writing is pointing to, its meaning. If they’re consciously aware of the writing as they’re reading, the writing isn’t communicating; it’s about itself. (Even this observation needs a caveat: in some great writing, there are cadential gestures whose verbal clothing is memorable. “Wow!” we say. “Listen to this!”) In the editing stage of a piece, I’m still on the inside, checking out the ropes, as it were. When I get done with that, I’m usually imaginatively tired—I let go. I stop thinking about it from the inside. Which means I continue to edit at my peril. Knowing that there are all those intricate connexions, even when I’m no longer consciously aware of their precise nature and number, stops me fussing once I’ve let go.
You describe your value as an editor resting in your ability to maintain a perspective outside the piece. I agree: the editor’s task is to inform a writer of what they’re hearing. At the same time, I value immensely the work of editors who can say to me, “If I were you, I might try this phrasing here.” Sometimes such suggestions can have the effect of someone turning on a light: right, right, I see! Other times I sense immediately that the suggestion won’t work because it’s not “connecting up” with things it has to connect up with—but that the editor could make that suggestion helps me understand what in that connected complex is not resonating strongly enough. And every now and then I’ll choose not to act on a suggestion only to wake up in the middle of the night and realize that I’m the one who’s not hearing what’s connecting up with what.
But now: for an editor to be able to make those kinds of suggestions, they have to have done some version of what you describe as absorbing the music of a piece in order to parse it, or as watching all the parts move together. Does this mean there are two kinds of “outsides”? A readerly “outside” and an editorial “outside”? Or is it that the reader is indeed outside whereas the editor is positioned on the border between the inside and the outside?
Graham: I think that’s it! And there might even be degrees of or different positions along or within that editorial border zone. I’ve always noticed a significant difference between the reading we do in order to decide what goes into an issue and the reading we do as we edit and prepare queries for a writer. The first instance has me reading as if from the perspective of a reader—that readerly outside. Though I’m not quite “the reader” as I read, I imagine myself to be: I imagine how a reader might respond to the piece, while also putting my toes on that border, looking at how the piece is saying what it’s saying, but in a broader way, from a little further back. And it’s sometimes a surprise to then dig into edits and notice things I simply didn’t see before. It can be a little startling or confounding—How did I miss all that’s happening here?—but I was reading from a different position, from further outside.
That second type of outside you describe, the editorial outside, requires a seeing in all directions from an in-between place: How will the reader understand this phrasing? What is the writer trying to say here? Will this piece of punctuation guide the reader appropriately? And perhaps most importantly, am I railroading the writer’s intentions with these suggestions? Do I need to back off and let the thing unfold?
This might relate to what I mentioned earlier about diplomacy: the editor is responsible for the path across that border, from writer to reader, inside to outside—to help present something seamless for the reader that brings out in full what the writer intends. I think too of the copy editor’s and the proofreader’s places in that border zone, as well as the difference between substantive and line edits. The challenge can be to understand and maintain the integrity of one’s particular editorial role, which is also a shifting role, or one that will have you moving outside and inside—or, rather than inside, maybe it’s a closeness, as inside as an outside eye can get.
I get the sense when I’m editing that I can see into the structure of the sentences and paragraphs, and I can watch closely the meaning and its unfolding, but I can’t truly know the writer’s perspective, can at best make guesses as to how they’d react to a query. So, just as we start the editorial cycle by reading as if we were readers, maybe key to the process of editing is reading as if from the inside, without actually being there.
For more on The Craft of Editing, check out Brick magazine’s YouTube series.