The visual approach to editing
Last week, after a short break, I went back and reread the rough draft of Eternal Empire, my third novel, and immediately had something close to a panic attack. I was surprised by this, because my initial read, right after finishing the draft, was highly positive—I thought it had the potential to be the best novel I’d ever written. The second time around, however, I could hardly find anything right with it: it seemed too slow, too padded, and above all too long. Looking at it more objectively, I could tell that the structure was ultimately sound, and I knew intellectually, if not viscerally, that the set pieces and story points were all good. I hadn’t constructed this novel haphazardly; I’d approached it with a solid plan. (As David Mamet says: “The more time you have invested, and the more of yourself you have invested in the plan, the more secure you will feel in the face of terror.”) All the same, I was left with a problem: the book was at least 15% too long, after close to the same amount had already been cut from the previous draft, and I had just over four weeks to fix it.
What I’m about to describe is going to sound slightly insane, but please bear with me. I began by going through my printed draft with a pencil and crossing out anything I could. For the most part, I wasn’t so much reading the chapters, which I knew fairly well by that point, as regarding them with the eye of a sculptor: I was cutting paragraphs that seemed too long, unbroken chunks of exposition, lengthy speeches, anything that looked like it was taking up too much space. If I had two long paragraphs in a row, I asked myself if what they were saying could be better expressed in one, and nearly every time, the answer was yes. And I paid particular attention to the beginning and end of each scene, looking for ways to get into the scene later and leave earlier, as well as cutting anything that seemed purely transitional, which can be as simple as starting with two characters already in a room instead of out in the hallway. Every now and then, I’d create a PDF of the draft and flip through it rapidly on my laptop, looking for moments when a chapter seemed to run a page or two longer than I was expecting, working mostly by intuition.
This may seem like a strange way of operating, but it’s not so different from what a film editor like Walter Murch does when he views a movie at high speed or with the sound turned down: I’m not worrying about the details, but focusing on big structural elements, which often express themselves visually on the page. Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere that all the words on a well-written page should look more or less the same, and to my mind, that’s also true of paragraphs. I’m not saying that every paragraph should be the same length, but that there’s a basic rhythm of description, action, and dialogue that I try to hit on a consistent basis, which is visually apparent at a glance. After all, when you’re browsing through a novel in a bookstore, you aren’t necessarily reading the words: you’re looking at the page to see whether it resembles your personal standard of readability. We all have a different sweet spot, but it’s one that we can intuitively recognize, once we’ve read enough books we like. And even when we’re reading a novel for real, we tend to approach the words on a page with a different state of mind when we see, out of the corner of one eye, that the chapter is about to end—a subliminal factor that doesn’t exist in film.
Personally, I’m convinced that this kind of high-level, predominantly visual approach to editing has a real impact on the experience of a reader who is encountering the story for the first time, moment by moment. And although this shouldn’t be the only editing approach a writer uses, it’s a valuable one, especially at the early stages of the editing phase, when you’re crossing out pages wholesale and focusing on the big picture. There will be plenty of time for granularity later, and if you find, on rereading, that you’ve accidentally cut out something important, you can always restore it. (This, incidentally, is why it’s important to save a new version of your manuscript with each major iteration of editing.) In my own case, by the time I’d finished this part of the process, I found that I’d cut close to 10,000 words from a draft that had already gone through one round of extensive cutting. Still, the memory of that first, awful read-through was a vivid one, and to get the manuscript down to what I thought was a reasonable length, I had to resort to the opposite approach. Tomorrow, I’m going to describe how I cut the next few thousand words, with the help of a well-designed spreadsheet.