Monday, August 15, 2011

Editing, the Gentler Side

Editing professionals is often difficult. Few writers thank you for bloodying their pages. Editing amateurs is usually much worse. Case in point: editing my sister's story for anthology submission.

Professionals, and most advanced amateurs, realize that what they write isn't perfect and it often takes a practiced eye to catch the faux pas, grammar goofs, and sentence structure problems that should be fixed, especially if publication is the goal. Editing my sister is always an exercise in perceived brutality and rampant perfectionism (mine) and inflicted pain and torture (hers). I am neither a brute nor a rampant perfectionist, but you will not convince her of that. I live to correct her. No, I live to write and correcting writing is a byproduct of the process, and I've dealt with my share of slash and burn sessions with editors, some of which I accepted with grace and some I accepted with grace after a spate of turning the air blue with curses, calling the editors' intelligence and competence into question, and envisioning the editor staked out naked over a red ant hill covered in honey in the middle of a desert with a pool of water just out of reach, although those incidents are rare and no editors have been harmed, except within the confines of my very fertile brain.

My sister (I'll call her Beanie. It is her nickname after all) sent me her essay about taking care of our dad when he was dying of cancer four years ago. She got a few facts wrong (dying four years ago and not five) and has a tendency toward run-on sentences, most of which are immediately apparent. It's the way she talks as well. It's partly my fault because I told her to talk it out and then type up what she recorded.

The central theme of the essay is taking care of dad and how that felt, which is in there. It is buried beneath a ton of sibling rancor and emotional detritus that is not going to make it into an anthology that is meant to feature the up side of life. This is all mostly downer. I get to tell her that she needs to dump most of what she has written and write more. She's going to love me.

The point is to do this delicately without hurting her feelings too much. She expects a little pain since she's known me all her life, but the pain must be quick and minimal. It's a balancing act.

The trick is to point up the good things -- and there are a few of those -- and show how to make the bad things go away or improve with a positive slant, sort of like political spin, except not so blatant. The point of the essay -- how difficult it was to balance her own life with taking care of dad -- is buried three paragraphs down and the dialogue is not in dialogue format. The latter is an easy fix. More description is needed, like how dad looked and how she saw him, and that will be fairly easy to fix once I can dig and drag it out of her. Beanie is a very private person and not so in your face and out there as I am. Another balancing act is necessary: me balancing criticism with praise and guidance.

It can be done and, in this case, must be done. Even if Beanie never writes anything else for publication, at least she will have tangible evidence that she wrote a memorial to Dad and shared it with others. It will be cathartic and also a bit of an ego boost that she had something published, both of which she needs right now. My job is to get her published.

One thing I've learned in editing and critiquing is that people remember what they read last. It is important to emphasize the praise and gently insert the criticism. I must do something right because, despite my red pen wielding slash-and-burn editing sessions, many of the writers I work with keep coming back and sending more people my way. I'm certain they turned the air blue and cursed me to the lowest circle of hell before they thanked me for my help. Beanie will curse me directly and will remember the time I slashed and burned my way through her writing right before she thanks me for helping her make the writing better.

When Beanie was taking some college English courses, she ranted about my editing. When I asked her what grades she received, she smiled and said she passed with an A. I hope a similar scenario will ensue, which is writer speak for, I hope she feels the same way this time.

In editing, as in dealing with anyone who could be homicidal given the right circumstances, it is best to deal gently with the writer, especially when the writer is an amateur. Use their words to best advantage, praise the good things, and help the writer see why removing a chunk of the text makes the work better. Last of all, add a dollop of praise and a pat on the back, and step aside to avoid the sling and arrows of the outraged writer. You'll live longer and be able to edit again.

No comments: