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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Good Work Through Good Editing.

Have you ever had the experience of reading a book with a compelling story, but nonetheless find that you are skimming through large chunks of it?  When that happens I often think, 'this book needed more editing.'  Good writing, be it a book, a legal brief, or a song, requires good editing.  Recent interviews with two successful writers illustrates the importance of editing in the creative process.

First, the Wall Street Journal interviewed musician and composer Paul Simon, who is now touring to promote his new disc, So Beautiful or So What.  Mr. Simon was asked "[w]hat's your success rate with songwriting?  How often do you hit a dead end?"  His answer:

There are not too many. . . Songs evolve over a period of time and I have the chance to edit and fix them, so I don't have to wait to the end to say no.  But occasionally, I'll be in the middle of a song and drop it if it doesn't feel true.  It's not a fun thing to do.  You tend to fool yourself as you go along, because you're working hard at it.  In a sense it's good, or competent, but it doesn't pass the test.

Mr. Simon's comments remind me of what I think of as "the second book phenomena":  An author spends years writing a first novel and it's a huge success.  A year or so later, seeking to capitalize on the recent success, a second book by the same author is rushed out and it is terrible, or as Mr. Simon might put it, "it's good, or competent, but it doesn't pass the test."  It's in those situations where it seems like the author hasn't had sufficient time, or perhaps the experience, to really edit the work.        

Allowing sufficient time to edit is illustrated by a second interview, one that I heard on NPR with Jeffery Eugenides, author of The Marriage Plot and Middlesex:

Eugenides tells NPR's Guy Raz that when he first started work on The Marriage Plot in the '90s, he had a very different story in mind — a story about a rich family preparing to throw a debutante party.  "One of the daughters in that family was Madeleine," Eugenides says. "And as I began to write her section, which I had envisaged would only be three or four pages, I kept going with her and started writing about semiotics, her boyfriend trouble, and little by little I realized I had another novel on my hands."

Note that Mr. Eugenides started work on what would become The Marriage Plot in the 1990s.  The book was published this year.

It's interesting to learn how Jeffery Eugenides and Paul Simon build their creative works, and to see the value they place on good editing.  As the world of book publishing continues to change, let's hope that editing doesn't get lost.  It is no fun to buy a book only to find yourself skimming through it.

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