Physician, Heal Thyself

Editing your own work is a risky proposition for all the much-discussed reasons: You’re too close to the work. You see what you meant to write rather than what is actually there. Familiarity is not your friend.

Everyone must edit his or her work to some extent, however, and self-editing is a skill that can be refined. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell provides a wealth of insight that should be helpful to any writer or editor. In the work, Bell lays out methods that have worked for her, but, as she says, “editing is as much an improvisation as a science,” and she supplies her readers with tools that in the end depend on “open-mindedness, courage, and stamina.”

Bell begins with a discussion on perspective and posits that you must first gain the proper perspective on a work before editing it effectively. There is always the war between what a person intends to write and what has actually been written, and you must in some ways let go of the first to effectively address the second.

Bell then delves into aspects of micro- and macro-editing, observing that most editors feel more comfortable doing one than the other. She suggests that editors should step out of their comfort zones and practice the kind of editing they feel less sure about. Many of us unconsciously revert to positions of strength, but we can all benefit from recognizing our weaknesses and consciously working at them.

Some of the most useful advice here lies in calling our attention to adjectives and adverbs, redundancy, repetition, and other flaccid language. Does our text stand up smartly and demand our attention or does it lie flat on the page?

Throughout the work, Bell illustrates her ideas with real-life examples, many of which provide interesting bits of literary history. The editor-writer relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Max Perkins is particularly fascinating, but readers will also enjoy anecdotes featuring W. H. Auden, Anton Chekhov, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, and Michael Ondaatje.

While undoubtedly many will read this and still regard writing as the “fun part” and editing as a type of penance one has to serve to get something in print, this excellent guide argues persuasively that editing, of oneself or others, is where the real magic happens.

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