This post is the final in our Bearings Online series on editors and editing. For this series, we asked editors to reflect on the particular joys and challenges of working with writers, and we published their responses every Thursday in September. To read other essays in this series, please click here.
Editor and writer Verlyn Klinkenborg taught me how to write by teaching me how to edit my own writing. His process was simple. Every week, my eleven classmates and I wrote two pages of prose on a topic of our choosing. In class, Verlyn handed out a sheet of paper with twelve sentences on it. The sentences were what he considered the single worst sentence in each of our submissions. Without emotion or ceremony, we walked through the twelve sentences and made them better. There was no embarrassment in the process; we were simply becoming better sentence crafters together.
Early in the semester, the sentences he picked were utterly abysmal for graduate writing students. We wrote run-ons and fragments. We made grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. We mixed metaphors. We used as to connect two things that weren’t happening simultaneously. We wrote dialogue without contractions even though people speak with contractions. We used vague words that didn’t mean much and inaccurate words that led the reader astray. Once, Verlyn pointed out in a scene with crayons and a coloring book that I wrote drawer when colorer is what I wanted to say.
Each week someone would skim the sheet and say, “I knew you were going to pick that sentence!”
“Then why didn’t you fix it before handing it in?” he’d calmly ask.
When Verlyn said he expected two pages of perfect prose he meant it. The assignment was intentionally short so we could build the rigor, persistence and endurance necessary for unwavering commitment to quality. He showed us how to jump on every sentence to make sure it could stand. Week by week, we saw each other’s writing get better. We saw our own writing get better. It was exhilarating.
“You need to care about your work more than any reader or editor,” he’d say. “It’s your work. Your name is on it. You have to know why you put every comma down. You need to stand behind every word choice. Why would you hand that power over to another person?”
I used to send my writing off to others for feedback too soon. It felt like a relief to have it off my plate and on someone else’s. I wasn’t working on it, but it was still progressing. Better someone else save my piece because I wasn’t sure I could. I’d also submit work before it was ready. Verlyn helped me own that my writing is my work and no one else’s. There’s a time and place for feedback, but now I wrestle with my own work a lot longer and trust my own instincts before opening it up to the opinions of others. He invited me to raise my expectations for myself. I learned my patterns, how I get lazy and take shortcuts. I started writing better sentences on the first try, and I also started finding weak sentences on later drafts and applying a zero tolerance policy to them. My attention to detail expanded. Even when I was desperate to be finished with a piece, I’d return to self-edit again and again.
A few things shifted automatically. I built more time into my process. I can write two pages fast, but it takes me a very long time to write two perfect pages. I started a new piece right after Verlyn’s class met to maximize my self-editing time. I wrote, then edited the big structural issues, then honed in on every single word. I walked away and came back. I was constantly writing, but never overwhelmed. I grappled with a transition in the shower, got out of bed to change a word, and held an image in my head on the subway, working toward a phrase to describe it adequately. In his genius, Verlyn turned clean writing into a game. Could we find all the weaknesses in our own writing before he found them?
By the end of the semester, the twelve sentences Verlyn selected had no objective mistakes among them. The conversation turned to how each sentence can have a surprise in it that makes reading more enticing. It is our job, after all, to entertain. In a one-on-one conference with Verlyn, he read one of my sentences aloud and said, “Can you hear it? Can you feel that? This sentence is complete. And if you can write one complete sentence, you can write a book of complete sentences one at a time.”
In teaching me how to self-edit, Verlyn taught me how to question the necessity of every word. Meticulous deleting builds trust with the reader. A reader will quickly sense that she is only being given what she needs. Verlyn would gently ask, “Is that sentence for you, or is it for the reader?” He reminded us, “You will write another great sentence, I promise. Trust yourself. Let it go.” We can get really taken by a word choice, a structural decision or a sentence, but it might not be right for the piece. The art must trump our affection for our first creation. We have to give ourselves over to the writing. A good day of deleting feels like a successful day of purging your closet, cleaning your kitchen, or weeding your garden. It can be both exhausting and rewarding to clear out the clutter, allowing only the essential to remain.
Self-editing also requires fragmenting the brain. By reading as a reader and not as the writer, we can we see what is actually there and not what we intended to be there. Quieting the writer and approaching a piece as a critical editor, we catch mistakes and weaknesses that the writer brain can fill in and pretend away.
Years later, Verlyn’s voice is still in my ear. When I get tired, overwhelmed, or self-critical, it’s a reminder to take it one sentence at a time. That commitment to each word is so consuming it quiets the voice of doubt. I wrote my last manuscript too fast and knew it. The sentences were not good enough. While waiting for a contract, I edited the entire book several more times. I picked up the pages and read them aloud, slowly. I listened to the words, working toward precision and accuracy. My self-editing muscles had atrophied. Now that the book is out, I’m writing a lot of flash non-fiction, striving yet again for two pages of perfect prose.
In his relentless commitment to great sentences, Verlyn took the scared, clinging emotion out of writing. Self-editing is about sitting in the muck of your early drafts and believing you can edit your way through it. You can skip the self-flagellation and put all that energy into simply improving the writing. Creating space between the ego and the writing is possible by undistracted focus on one word at a time.