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SLANT LETTER: How to Edit Your Work Like a Boss
After the Rough Draft:
Editing as Creative Empathy
When I was in college, I took a film photography class and was instantly hooked. I had always loved black and white photography and now I could become a student of the craft—the analog skills of developing your artistic eye, snapping the shutter at just the right moment, and most of all, learning the art of darkroom editing.
The darkroom was where the real magic happened: the studio sanctuary where tiny, scrappy film negatives were transformed into vivid 8x10 portraits of the human experience. True to its name, the darkroom was illuminated only by red light, the only kind that would not bring light-sensitive film negatives to ruin.
It was here, under the red glow, that we learned the classic photo editing methods of dodging and burning: the manual process of controlling how much light hit the print to darken and brighten its details.
I think of editing much in the same way. You have a raw negative, . The essence is there, but through editing you can sharpen its exposure. Through dodging and burning, you can turn a muted print into a high contrast masterpiece. A little sharpening here, a little softening there; you can turn the dials this way and that to heighten, highlight, shade in, trim out, and tweak your way toward the final cut.
But first thing’s first. What’s the purpose of editing, anyway?
Well, the writing happens in your inner world, where you are safe to process your thoughts, emotions, and stories and wrangle meaning out of them. You are free to write your first draft in your own personal shorthand.
Editing, then, is an act of translation.
It’s what happens when your rough draft declares its intention to gussy up and go public, when you begin to shift the mirror from your singular experience to the universal human experience. You write your rough drafts in your own private language. But “me too” is your reader's native language, so you edit as an act of translation [tweet this].
The aim of every redlined change and cross-out is to convert the impact of your firsthand experience to your reader, so they can share in your epiphany or emotive insight with you. Editing is the intentional process of bringing your words, written in solitude, into the realm of the interpersonal. In this way...
Editing is also an exercise in compassion.
It asks that you stand in your reader’s shoes, receive your stories and arguments anew from their eyes, anticipate their reactions, and sculpt your content accordingly to best engage them.
Editing requires empathy and imagination to meet readers where they are [tweet this]. Writers I work with often hear this common refrain from me: aim to meet readers where they are.
I about how “amateur” writing simply means writing that is motivated by love. If writing is motivated by love for the craft, let your editing by motivated by love for your reader [tweet this]. Love your reader more than you love the sound of your own voice. Love them enough to get eye-level, listen to their unspoken needs, and do the work to bridge the gap between your intent and their interpretation.
Think of it like a magnet. Compassion calls you to ask yourself of each page and paragraph: will this push my reader away or will it pull them in? Will it engage them or alienate them?
And finally, editing is an act of humanity.
Writing professor William Zinsser famously contended that there are four foundations of great writing: “Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.” It’s this last one that holds the highest praise I can give any work of writing, no matter the genre.
Humanity is the it-factor behind every reader’s “YES” scrawled in the margins, every “THIS” retweet, and every “Me too” whispered in the dark [tweet this]. We write to name the human experience. So we edit to open the door and invite readers to share in that experience with us.
The Best Part
You can see how these purposes for editing overlap and braid together. Once you are attuned to one of them, you start to grow in all of them, and your writing is all the better for it.
My favorite part of the darkroom editing process came at the end. It really was like magic:
a white blank submerged into a chemical bath, and slowly, a grayscale image appeared like a Polaroid apparition, shaken awake. All that dodging and burning produced a print you could share with the world.
Ultimately, you put your writing under the redline for the same reason you put film negatives under the red light: so that you can help others see what you see. So we can all stand in this wild thing together.
Until next time!
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
P.P.S. // A Prayer for Writers
SLANT LETTER is for the craft and soul of what you do as a writer. So for each issue, I want to focus on an element of the craft as well as a prayer for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk. I hope this will refresh you as it does for me. Read it, print it, share it, and I hope, live it too.