30 percent or die trying

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” — Blaise Pascal, 1657

Editing is sadism; self-editing is masochism. But if you’re going to enter the leather-clad world of professional writing, you probably ought to learn to be a switch.

I’ve edited for all sorts of clients, including myself, and all demand a different hand. When I was writing for publications — at newspapers or ghostwriting for others — the client is the rest of the world. That requires, frankly, a deliberate level of cruelty. You have control over someone else’s words, and you change them at your discretion more than thier creator’s. That’s an aggressive, unkind and absolutely necessary thing to do when it comes to putting thing out to the public under someone else’s reputation. When I work as a reporter, there’s little worse than standing over the shoulder of your editor, watching them butcher words you thought were perfect (or you wouldn’t have turned them in). As an editor, you have to ignore those same sighs and whines to arrive at clarity and word count.

When I edit novels or stories, I’m more gentle. In those cases the client is the writer, and I’m doing my best to help their words get better. But I have to always appreciate that in that case, my audience is THEM. In some of my earlier jobs I was brutal and hurtful; it wasn’t intentional and the focus remained on making the work as good as it could be. But editing unpurchased fiction requires a calmer hand, because improvement comes from coaxing more than coercion. Thats’ why when I edit fiction for a client, I only agree to do so if I an do it paper and red pencil. I make suggestions, but the client decides what to accept or what to ignore.

As for my stuff, I’m cruel. My first novel (my second, but the first was so awful I don’t even have a copy anywhere) clocked in at 183,000 words. I knew I’d never get an agent to even look at that. So I cut. And I cut, and I cut, and I cut. I took my red pencil and Xed out full pages. I went through every paragraph and found a sentence that wasn’t absolutely needed. And by the time I was done I was down to 140.

Still not enough. Next read through got it down to 130. Next one 126, and that’s where I let it go out. I’d never cut a client so deep, but the client was me.

And in the end, the client is the book. The story, the article, the speech, the press release. The words. They deserve the best effort I can give them, because they’ve given me so much.

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