I’ve had The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself (2007) by Susan Bell on my to-read list ever since I decided to try NaNoWriMo about seven months ago. I can’t remember how I originally found The Artful Edit, but I quickly decided to postpone reading it until after I had actually written something to edit. And that’s how I came to be reading it in December.
Susan Bell taught a New York’s New School graduate writing class in self-editing, and I think the idea for the book came from that class. Bell separates the book into five separate chapters: one about stepping away from your work to gain perspective; one focused on macro-editing; the next on micro-editing; a “master class” delving into editing for different artists (i.e. photography); and finally a brief history on editing and how it’s changed throughout the years. Although this book was more school learnin’ than entertainment, I found it generally interesting and helpful. The chapters end with a quick summation of the suggestions discussed in the chapter, and I think I’ll keep those for further reference. The last chapter dragged, and was more challenging to push through, although Bell still managed to relate it back to our own works.
Unlike No Plot? No Problem!, which got me started on the whole NaNoWriMo adventure, The Artful Edit is a little more intimidating. Instead of encouraging laypeople that anyone can do it, Bell dissects great literary texts and quotes and discusses countless famous authors (only some of whom I actually knew). I definitely got the sense that this book was for “real” writers. Part of me felt desperately out of my league. However, Bell also had a number of famous authors describe their own editing processes, which turned out to be quite varied. Not only was this fascinating, but it was freeing to see that what works depends on who you are and how you work.
One of the main teaching elements of The Artful Edit was the use of The Great Gatsby. Bell liberally used quotes from earlier versions with comparisons to the final draft, as well as some enlightening correspondence between Fitzgerald and his editor to illustrate various aspects of writing and editing. The examples were helpful as illustrations, but it was also fascinating to see the building of something so famous. I’m certainly not looking to write a great classic: an understandable story that I let some of my friends read would count as a major accomplishment, but it was inspiring to see how much difference editing can make in a text. I haven’t even looked at my first draft since the end of November, but reading this book has me excited to get back into it.
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