On Editing
Monday, June 22, 2009 at 11:50PM
Kevin Meath in Editing, Editorial Disciplines, Personal

Walter Benjamin was a critic and philosopher who had some important insights into art and culture.

I can’t abide his Marxist worldview, but somewhere along the way he wrote a simple, brilliant sentence that so perfectly captures my experience as an editor that I now use it as a guide in thinking about almost every project:

“Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.”

While I could make a case for components possibly being more accurate than steps or stages, this is nevertheless a masterful summation of what it takes to create truly good prose.

Music, of course, is the writer’s voice, tone, and style, combined with the passion and depth of insight he or she brings to the project.

The architectonic component is all about the superstructure of the work. How well is it planned and laid out? Do all the pieces, large and small, join together in ways that are clean and logical, each contributing in a fitting way to the whole? Does that architecture create a comfortable building the reader can move around in and walk through without ever feeling lost or confused?

The textile phase is what ultimately distinguishes solid, compelling writing from merely serviceable prose. Ideally, the individual elements of each sentence, paragraph, and section must be discerned. As necessary, they then must be separated from one another, cleaned, trimmed, and rewoven into a tighter, stronger, smoother, more pleasing fabric. Such a fabric will complement the architecture and embody the music.

Most draft manuscripts have been composed quite a bit better than they have been built, and built quite a bit better than they have been woven. The frequent task of the editor is to help the writer see that his understandably precious manuscript, which seemed to be a good 90 percent complete, is really about 70 percent complete, maybe less.

The next piece of bad news is that the 80/20 rule absolutely applies to writing. A great many books, especially those intended to help people grow spiritually, go to press prematurely. The ironic result is that the reader who may have picked up a particular book out of a sense of obligation now faces an added disincentive: the material is just not connecting as it could—as it should.

Almost nothing of any significant length goes to press at 100 percent; the effort required is just too great. But somewhere north of about 85 percent lies the sweet spot, the place where the music sings, the architecture is sound and logical, and the fabric is smooth and beautiful. When you combine that with content that can genuinely help people live their often conflicted lives in a world that is packed full of both soaring beauty and relentless sin, you have done a rare and wonderful service to God and man.

That's the goal.


Article originally appeared on Kevin Meath (http://kevinmeath.squarespace.com/).
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