The Editor’s Pen like the Surgeon’s Knife Brings Health to the Body

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” – Arthur PlotnikThe Elements of Editing

I knew about editing. I’d taken JM 101 – three months of rules on writing and editing — a required course for all Auburn journalism students. As part of that course, we committed to memory a quote from Strunk’s The Elements of Style. “Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” I would bet my last novel that none of these useless adjectives were anywhere in my 35 Chapters.

Of course, I knew about editing – I’d worked as an assistant editor for a newspaper and edited a newsletter and Annual Report for the Alabama Judicial System. I was prepared for the occasional misspelled word, punctuation error or unclear thought. Not even the best writer can write and edit their own work without having some errors. I knew that because – I knew about editing.

On August 31, I was enlightened.  What I knew about editing had fallen short! I was ignorant when it came to editing a novel-length work. I was not prepared and am thankful that I had no idea my work would need what Strunk refers to as “major surgery.” My Editor had cut deep into the body of my work and written 392 thought-provoking suggestions that included deleting a character, deleting an entire chapter and deleting a puppy dog. Was this guy heartless?

Then, on top of his cold-hearted suggestions he advised me to take two weeks to review, revise and resubmit my work. In a world of no homework, no extracurricular activities for my children, no Auburn football games, no pets, no husband who wanted a date night and no other responsibilities, this would have been possible.

Six weeks and two days later, I turned in my revised version of Jumpin’ the Rails. What took me so long? At first it was like being a student and having one on one time with my professor. I was giddy and dove into the first 30 suggestions and wished I could commit every hour of every day to revisions, but as the hours and days passed and the suggestions required more and more research, clarity and deletions, I became weary.

Especially weary when my Editor said I needed to get tough with my main characters. I had made it too easy for them to get in and out of trouble. My stomach sank and my throat tightened. I love these guys; they aren’t real, but they are based on real people and… The editor didn’t care he said it’s your audience you are writing for and this is what they need. So with my “pen” sharpened I put them in harm’s way and made them hurt and it made me hurt.

During the last six weeks, I have spent all but one weekend and every available weekday working through the Editor’s comments. There was one morning when I asked myself if I could quit or if I could throw out his suggestions and publish it as is? Those thoughts lasted as long as it took to rub my eyes, grab a cup of coffee, sit down and start again.

This is also the only time in my life I’ve been thankful and slightly suspicious as to why I came down with a 10-day upper-respiratory virus that kept me in bed for a week. Was it a gift? I accepted it as one and used it to write and revise. Otherwise, who knows how long it would have taken!

I made it from 1 to 392 but the task was daunting. As I worked on one section or changed another it was like taking apart a puzzle and placing it back together. I would write myself to the next section; hoping the two would eventually meet.

When I was about half-way through, my Editor recommended I delete an entire chapter but added it shouldn’t be a problem because he’d already given me plenty to write about and it shouldn’t affect my word count or the length of my novel.

That Stinker! He knew what he was doing all along. I had indeed written more and in the end my word count was up. I had deleted 10,000 words from my original draft and written another 15,000 from his suggestions.

I took most of his suggestions, however, at least once I decided to keep a small detail with which I was not willing to part.

I’ve been edited and been the editor. My past experiences had prepared me to consider someone else’s view and accept constructive criticism, but having a novel edited was much more intense than I had imagined. It has given me a healthy respect for editors and authors.

My novel entered its second phase of its three-phase edit last week. I am excited to see this process of publishing so close to finished but most of all I am excited for the over-all message of Jumpin’ the Rails to be clearer — to be seen through “the smoke.”  This is only possible through the sometimes-painful process of editing.

So to my hardworking Editor I say, “Let the next phase of surgery begin!”

Cover Photo by Aleks Slavich 

Pictured in the photo are a Civil War surgical set, bone saw, railroad watch and photo of General Tyler. 

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