Editing: Seeing What’s Not There

When I ask my students to edit their work, they often give me fearful looks in return. “So you want me to add a sentence somewhere?” they might ask.
“No,” I reply, smiling.
“A comma?” they guess.
“No again.”
“What do you want then?”
“I want you to edit the paper—find where it needs work and make it stronger.”
Surely I’ve exaggerated how such meetings with students go—they aren’t nearly this naïve and I hope I’m more helpful than I’ve portrayed in this small vignette. But my point remains. Many of us are fearful of true editing. Like those students, we want to alter a scene or fix a sentence and call it done, but that’s something else entirely—line editing.
Editing requires vision. A vision to see what’s missing. A vision to see what doesn’t exist yet. A vision to see the possibilities.
When I am editing a paragraph, I’m trying to find the missing links or perhaps missing sentences—the place where I have skipped steps and left the reader wanting more. When I’m editing an academic paper, I’m searching for weak points in the argument, a place where a theorist might help bolster my point of view or perhaps a section that needs more evidence. When I’m editing a book, I’m searching for which whole parts, entire aspects, are missing or lacking. Perhaps the work needs a feeling of triumph at the end. Maybe the hero needs to be more heroic. The character arc might not be quite right. I might have a plot hole or a loose end to tie up.
I’m looking for big things. Things that either are not yet there, or perhaps are so small and undeveloped that they almost seem not to exist. I’m looking for things that might be there, somewhere down the line. And that takes a special type of vision—one that goes beyond the words on the page and into the realm of possibility.
My challenge to myself and all you fellow writers out there is this—we need to see with new eyes, ones that are not just focused on the reality, but on the ideal. We want eyes that can find potential and then the discipline to turn it into actuality.

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As a journalism lecturer I think the words ‘tighten up’ should be carved on my gravestone. And ‘read it aloud’.

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