Saturday, July 05, 2008

Editing the garden

I just stepped outside to take a break and enjoy the cool back yard after a rain. I found myself stooping to pull the occasional weed, and the parallels between gardening and editing suddenly struck me. (Why this never occurred to me before I have no idea.) I’m not quite sure where this is going, but indulge me for a few moments and maybe something will strike you as instructive.

Weeding
A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds.
I get manuscripts in all conditions. One might have just a handful of errors, like a well-tended garden with just the occasional small weed that managed to escape the gardener’s eye. Another may look more like an abandoned yard, with weeds everywhere and just a hint of what was once cultivated there.

In the former situation, a visitor with a practiced eye can stroll through the garden and stoop occasionally to remove the offending plant. In the latter, it may be necessary to destroy the garden in order to save it. And even then, “one year’s seeding is seven years’ weeding”: it will take many passes over a long period to make the plot manageable.

Structure
A couple of weeks ago, I was standing in my kitchen, drinking a glass of water, when there was an enormous flash and simultaneous crack of thunder. I knew something had been hit, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I saw the damage. A large tree in our yard had exploded (there was no charring; the lightning had apparently superheated the water inside the trunk). Clearly, the tree had to come down. However, the bones of the garden were so well planned (several owners ago), that after the tree’s removal, the structure of the garden remains. The gap is not even noticeable, as the adjacent trees still define the wall of that particular room.

There are times when a book suffers a corresponding injury: A passage the author wanted to quote has to be eliminated because the rights are not available or affordable; events overtake the book and the thesis of a chapter or section turns out to be unsupportable; a co-author’s contribution fails to materialize. And, as in the case of the well-architected garden, the well-structured book survives the excision.

Choosing plants
The skillful gardener has a theme in mind to apply to each room—perhaps it’s a succession of bloom in a single color; perhaps it’s a riot of nighttime fragrance; perhaps it’s a colorful hodgepodge designed to attract hummingbirds; and so forth. Plants that are tried but don’t work to advance the theme are ruthlessly extirpated.

Similarly, the editor is on the lookout for sudden and awkward shifts in tone or mood that bring the reader up short.

Cultivation and fertilization
Gardening is a dirty business. Spading, fertilizing, planting, watering, hoeing. Wear old clothes and leave time for a shower before you show off your handiwork.

Producing a book can be just as messy. The art is in producing a finished work that doesn’t show where you ripped out and reset a brick path or where you uprooted a large rhododendron. The goal is to have the reader marvel at how easy it must have been to edit such a well-put-together finished book.

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