Coco Chanel famously said take one piece off before you leave the house. It’s possible that Iris Apfel wants you add ten pieces back on even if you’re just going into the kitchen. Either way, from the moment we walk out the door, we’re adding and subtracting to present some kind of coherent self to the world. This is how I think about editing—it’s adding and subtracting until you get it right.
Great! But what to load on and where to cut back? My novice students would bring me back a piece of writing they’d taken home to revise full of pride at their “fix.” Unfortunately, this sometimes meant they’d taken out all the good, compelling, flawed stuff and replaced it with dull, exposition and footnote-like tics. My more sophisticated students grow more hesitant by the page. “I worry that I’m ruining it,” one said one about her recent short story and I get that fear. A piece of writing looks pretty solid on the page, but all writers know it’s really a quivering, jelly-like mass, threatening to liquefy at a single clumsy touch.
Good editors—both the ones we hire and the ones we learn to be ourselves—get it pinned to the page correctly. When I teach my aspiring writers to edit, I encourage them to ask the part of every writer’s mind that is just one enormous red pencil to go sit in the corner for a moment. That red pencil mind needs to chill.
Instead, after the frenzy of creation, think about the simple steps it took to get there. Bring in the beginner’s mind that stands awestruck before the imagination. What parts contributed to that? I’d edit with respect to a goal. You were trying to say something. If you can really do that, you’ve accomplished one of the most difficult things of all.
Is there a formula? No. And Michelangelo did not say of his famous sculpture: “I just chipped away everything that wasn’t David.” Though in researching it you might run into The Quote Investigator (http://quoteinvestigator.com/) my new favorite time suck. There’s no end of editing advice, though it may cut into your writing time to read it all. My current advice is to try and separate editing from censoring. Be passionately dispassionate. Learn to be as good a reader as you are a writer.
And, wait, did Coco, really say that about costume jewelry? I’ll get right back to you with my red pencil.