My Andy Warhol Approach to . . . editing.

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I enjoy documentaries about famous dead people. 

In a PBS-aired documentary about Andy Warhol, the narrator shared a story about Warhol coaching one of his protégés on the subject of self-judging one’s work. 

The advice he gave the younger artist was profound, and it surprised me that such an unconventional individual as Warhol was—could–or would offer something so “fatherly” sounding. 

This isn’t verbatim, but in essence, Warhol told his protégé: “Just do the work, and do a lot of it. It won’t be up to you to decide if your work is any good. That is for somebody else to decide.” 

It’s a fairly liberating notion. 

While art and beauty are in the eye of the beholder and visual artists have a different method of attack they work from as compared to what a writer does, I believe  we writers need to take Warhol’s advice one step further. 

I mean, if an artist doesn’t quite get the hue of the western sky right, the average person may dismiss it to style or artist’s choice, but let a reader pick up a book or a story and find uneven sentences, misspelled words, missing punctuation, and we can have our work tossed in the trash and labeled amateurish by prospective editors, literary agents and publishers. 

For sure, we writers should do a lot of writing. A lot. It’s good practice. And, yes, we should not get caught up in that “is-my-stuff-good-enough?” self-destruct mechanism, but we have another level to add to our work that the visual artists do not. 

We have three serious editing phases to go through before our works sprout wings and leave home. 

Do you know the three basic components of a solid edit? 

The mechanical edit. 

  • Is your capitalization consistent throughout your piece?
  • How about your hyphenation?
  • Are your verbs and subjects in agreement?
  • Are your beginning and ending quotation marks and parentheses clear and appropriate?
  • Do you get carried away with ellipsis (like I do)?
  • Are your numbers represented as figures or written out? (Do you know the difference?)
  • How’s your paragraph length looking in the overall document? Do you have a two-page paragraph where the reader’s eye never gets a break?
  • How about your spelling? Spell-check does not sitteth at the right hand of God the Father. I can’t imagine it ever will from what I’ve observed.

The substantive edit.

This type of edit is helpful in the rewriting and reorganization process of your project.

  • Can you stand far enough away from your work to recognize a better, maybe more effective or alternative way to present your subject or story?
  • Have you stayed in the voice/tone of the overall piece, or did you switch gears halfway through the novel—at the risk of losing your reader?
  • Will you catch your mixed metaphors?
  • Will you recognize misplaced modifiers?
  • How about remote antecedents? (You know what these are?)

The copyediting edit.

  • Is the overall formatting presentation and appearance of your writing project neat and easy on the eyes?
  • Have you been consistent in the spacing between sentences and narrative pauses? Transitional paragraphs?
  • Have you checked for proper and clean pagination throughout?
  • Have you allowed widows and orphans to exist in your document?

Qualified and merciless editing won’t kill us, and our project will be visually and grammatically beautiful. 

Now, if they don’t like us—well, meh. Then you’ll need to remember Mr. Warhol’s words.

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We simply have to try on a lot of words to see what we like. – R’becca G.

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The editing process: to kill your soul, or not to kill your soul–

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Talent and self-confidence do not necessarily keep each other company, and there are plenty of biographical stories in libraries and cyberspace about famous authors, musicians, etc. that provide backing for this statement. 

World-famous Austria-born composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) is such an example. 

My husband and I listened to pre-concert notes presented by the conductor at a recent symphonic presentation of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major (for those of you deep into long-dead composers). 

We both felt sadness at the picture it painted of Bruckner’s life. Born of brilliant precocity, but from a country bumpkin background, he had received excellent musical training and was an outstanding organist, who composed expansive orchestral works. 

Many composers revised their work after premieres, upon the advice—or interference—from their colleagues, but Bruckner’s insecure personality took this to extremes. He continuously revised his scores at the demand of conductors, publishers, other musicians and the music critics. As a result, most of his symphonies exist in so many versions that it is often difficult for symphonies to decide which version to perform. 

His sense of inferiority and his social gracelessness were legendary, his clothing a course of jokes and cartoons at the time.

The man even denigrated himself to the point of falling to his knees the first time he met Richard Wagner, who he worshipped—and this just made things worse for him as it pitted him between the Wagner “groupies” of the day and the Brahms “groupies.” 

He suffered bouts of severe depression fighting his futile battle for recognition and trying to get his music performed, was extremely deferential to intellectual and professional authority, and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. 

He began composing his Fifth Symphony amidst this entire emotional, not to mention financial, difficulty in 1875. Finished it in 1876. Revised it in 1877 and again in 1878. Its garbled, re-revised form  premiered in 1894 and was severely emasculated by the conductor that night–one of Bruckner’s students. Bruckner was too ill by then to attend. It took another 38 years before the original 1878 version was performed in 1932 and finally published in 1935. 

Ouch. 

Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 consists of 4 movements and is played straight through which lasts around 75-minutes. 

So—at the end of the performance that evening my husband commented that he enjoyed the presentation overall, but that some of the beginnings, or transitions, seemed rather disjointed, or disconnected to the rest of the music once it was underway, and that he didn’t care for this. He felt it interfered with the overall flow. 

My immediate thought was: Was it all the revising and letting-in-the-head-of-the-demons called conductors, publishers, other musicians and music critics that contributed to this? 

I have a $20.00 bill in my purse that says it was. 

I’m in that serious level of novel editing right now; the one where I have to sort through all the comments and suggestions that are before me. The people they came from are experienced, but as I take my time pouring over the suggestions, the quote from Neil Gaiman keeps popping into my head: 

When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.

When they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. 

The critical formatting and grammar edits are easy. Whether to cut certain words, or that whole paragraph—or those 3 pages—is more challenging. 

This is where I believe it’s important to take your time to remember who you are, and what it is you wanted to say.

If you aren’t careful, you could edit your voice out of your own work.