The Efficacy of Editing

Quite a lot has been written about nurturing, or unleashing, or developing individual creativity, depending on whom you read. Not much has been written about editing the output of that creativity. If you research editing (for art works) you will find very little. There are a few tips for writers out there, but for the others of us, there is virtually nothing. Almost everyone who writes about the creative process mentions editing, but no one discusses the topic in full. I, myself, have mentioned editing several times, suggesting most recently that editing will allow you to make your work definite, strong, and meaningful.

Editing is just as much a part of art as the inspirational or inventive part. For example, Walter Murch, editor of The Godfather, Part II and Apocalypse Now has said that film editing “could just as easily be called ‘film construction.’” Stories abound about Murch and other film editors who have, by changing the pace and timing and juxtaposition of shots, actually “created” the most interesting and moving parts of the films. And what is true of film is true of other arts as well. Playwrights edit their already “finished” work, modifying and rewriting until opening night and sometimes after it. If you are familiar with Project Runway, then you certainly are aware of the judges repeatedly advising designers to edit their work. These fashion professionals seem to believe that runaway creativity may be just as bad no creativity.

Editing shapes the raw material of creativity. And self-editing is far more difficult than editing the work or others. It is relatively easy to look at a piece by someone else and see things that, if changed, would make the piece better. That’s why publishers employ editors, to take the task away from the far-more-subjective authors. However, looking at your own work and finding those same things to change is far more difficult. I suppose this is because you are so close to the work and perhaps have an emotional investment in it. The other reason is that a lot of us try to edit as we go, which does not allow us to be far enough removed from the creation of the piece to be as objective as we need to be to edit effectively.

Ernest Hemingway suggested that we “write drunk; edit sober.” Whether you write or photograph or paint or sculpt drunk or just in the flow, it is likely that what you produce will be in need of editing. And good editing requires that you be sober and objective.

For me, really effective editing requires a time lapse. I have to have enough time to let go of the work and come back to it with fresh eyes. How long that is depends on the work and how much creative investment I have in it, but some time lapse is required. Whatever time lapse works for you, or whatever other method you develop for yourself, the key is to come to the work with fresh eyes. Only then can you summon the objectivity needed to really examine, modify, and improve your work.

Of course, when you learn to edit as part of the total creative process, you find that there will always be something to change. There is always a tweak that can be made to improve the piece. So along with editing, you have to develop a sense of when to stop. That is, you have to be able to determine when the process can be suspended and the artifact released.

While it is part of the process, editing not just one more phase of creativity; it is a separate function entirely—not completely divorced from creation, but not the same either. It is the refining of creative output. And for really good work it is an absolute requirement.

Date: Monday, 10. October 2011 0:16
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    You mention editors besides yourself. For me that’s always a good idea. I have a few trusted people with good eyes who help me with editing. But, you have to be careful not to engage folks who are likely to just applaud the work and not be willing to offer any real critique. Nice to hear, but not really helpful. It’s also good if they can not only tell you something is “off” but also tell you why and even better if they can suggest a solution. Art is created for an audience, so it just makes sense to run it past one.

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