While writing my college Thesis, I always left every meeting with my supervisor with a long face. She was addicted to drawing lines and circles on my work. My research mates were even angrier, “why does she always have something to cut off?” they would ask.
For me who did the bulk of the writing, it often felt like she had a personal grudge against me by consistently killing my babies. But in hindsight, I am grateful she did. Because she was teaching precision and conciseness but we were more concerned about getting the thesis done than learning lifelong skills.
In the few years I’ve been blogging —or rather pretending to blog— my writing skills have improved. That thing experts say about practice might be true, just hold on, and I will let you know if I become a writing guru. But practice is teaching me to be precise, concise, and legible. Many things are already competing for a reader’s attention and that aside, why write what nobody will understand?
Still, this is a tough challenge for me because I love long-reads, and also enjoy hiding things in plain sight for my readers to discover. Finding the middle ground between both is the difference between a concise piece that leaves the reader longing for more, and a boring monologue that sends everyone to sleep. I don’t want my writing to become a lullaby. So I strive to find that balance.
Editing is self-mutilation. We write with a pen or keyboard but editing is done with an axe, and most of us are unaware. I let out a piece of myself with every word I write but when I begin to edit, cutting 1500 words down to 1200 and even less, I chop off parts of myself. First I look at my fingers and decide four are enough so I chop off one. Then I decided to cut another finger. Soon I am arm-less and I hold the axe with my teeth. What I have become is totally different from what I was. A new creature. Something that is, that never was.
As ruthless as I delude myself to be, I am often asked to chop off parts of writings, rephrase sentences for clarity, reduce my word count, and to stop repeating my ideas. ‘Rinsing and repetition is not always good. It causes boredom.’ ‘Don’t send your readers away,’ these are few of the advices I have gotten. I interpret it as to become more ruthless. But I have a heart, or so I think.
“For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” is a flash fiction attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Anytime I read this story, I wonder what he had in mind. Did he set out to write about a baby’s shoes? Or is this just one sentence from a larger piece? Did he wield his axe, beheading others and sparing these few words? Is this about conciseness and precision or an experiment gone great?
Hemingway is known for his terse sentences and axe wielding editing. A short story with five characters becomes a flash fiction about the shoe of one character. The other characters wiped off the face of the earth. The owner of the shoes, not even spared, so Hemingway settled for his shoes. Mean Hemingway, creating a person just to erase him. I am not Hemingway, but I am learning the importance of zeroing in and cutting out excess flesh. An obese short story or essay is unhealthy, right?
If I were a writer or an expert, I would dish out ten tips about editing. But we will have to wait an eternity for that. However, one sentence I stumbled on is enough; “use less words, not useless words.” I tend to do the latter, but I am learning. And as a friend would say, “talk is cheap but words are expensive.” These two statements are a reminder of what my thesis supervisor was teaching me then. She wasn’t on a vendetta against my beloved words. She wanted me to be economical, to stick to budget and not waste funds like the Nigerian government.
“To write is human, to edit is divine.” Stephen King said. And Simple reading is hard writing. This is because to achieve that, you sacrifice your darlings. I sometimes imagine Stephen King wielding an axe, beheading thousands of words, and being arraigned for genocide in The Hague of Words. But no, words are not worth it, or maybe they are worth more.
Writing is more than just putting words on paper, it’s more than typing. It is editing. It is not just knowing what to go in, it’s knowing what to let go. A friend said I am cruel with editing. That I cut out words without mercy. What she doesn’t know is that I hear the screams of the words I cut out. They screech on their knees, eyes red, begging to be spared. It hurts, but I let them stayed dead because they are nothing but flowery combinations of words. Besides there can never be enough space for everyone. Economics say it’s the theory of alternative forgone.
Conclusively, you cannot edit a blank page, so littering a page with words is important. However, a first draft is nothing. There are many things there that have no business been there, and there are many others waiting outside, raising a placard, begging to get in because that’s where they should be. Editing is knowing the difference between essential and compulsory. Editing is the gate-keeper that let in conciseness and precision, and that was what my supervisor was teaching me with her lines and circles.
Writing is easy, editing is even easier.
Just make sure in your dictionary easy is a synonym for hard.