Wielding the Editorial Machete

July 15, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Brian Watson

I lost track of the revision count. There had been many since the first draft of my memoir. The more I worked, the more details flew into my mind. I caught my breath in May, thinking that all was good. The word count? 103,946.

Judas Priest, that’s a lot.

Part of me was proud. One hundred thousand words was a mythical goal. I have things to say — important things, of course — and the words just tumbled out of me.

A friend read a small part of it. She was encouraging, as I had hoped she would be, but her hammer fell.

“Do you really need all of this description?”

My ego fell into a thousand pieces. A crash, a calamity.

And I paused. I stepped away from the impulse to be defensive. My friend was a writer. She knows what she’s talking about. And I can listen to sage advice, gently given. Before my ego had a chance to reassemble, I looked again at the pages. I could see what she meant. She was right.

The memoir began as an exorcism. My old traumas and their many ghosts were siphoned out of me, onto the screen. The words poured out in an urgent rush. A Columbia River of ideas, with no Grand Coulee to dam any of them up.

Words are very important to a trauma survivor like me. I must describe everything. I must be precisely clear. You must know exactly how I felt.

But your reader is never your therapist. Nor your parent. My words, the descriptions, they were getting in the way. I loved my outpourings but yes, they walled the reader away from the crux of it all. My words were supposed to embrace the reader. The reader would then, in turn, embrace them, but with my ego still shattered, helpless, I saw something different. My words kept the reader away. The descriptions made everything opaque.

A concern lingered: What if, after I make more revisions, cut the extra words out, my voice as an author is damaged? I refused my entry into that rabbit hole of despair, took a deep breath, and began.

The first thing to go were summary descriptions. I laughed at first. I was certain. I already excised them all. Surely there were none left.

But I went looking, and I found them.

In a chapter that described my discovery, at age seventeen, of the glory holes in the men’s restroom at the local Sears, a paragraph began like this.

I returned to that restroom time and again for quick anonymous sexual releases. One time, however, a man had asked me to…

That first sentence had to go. Get the reader into the action. Faster. And that triple dose of adjectives there at the end of it? Cut it all.

During one of my suddenly frequent visits, a stall neighbor whispered, follow me.

The clouds parted. This is the way. Summary descriptions now popped off the page at me. I was merciless, slashing them all.

And then I saw my writing tics. Phrasing that is natural to my speaking voice. Over and over, I saw them in sentences. …to a point… …as a result…

Time to wield the editorial machete. Chop, chop, chop.

What else caught my eye? Redundant descriptions. The reader already knows I’m in Japan. I did not need to remind them in forty separate paragraphs of where I was.

Another thing I saw was my need to take the reader by the hand. To carefully, specifically, walk them, step by step, inch by inch, from moment to moment, scene to scene.

The reader might be interested, once, in mapping out the exact route I took to commute to work, for example, but once was enough. The reader might care, once, how I navigated my apartment, how the rooms were connected, which doors I closed as I crossed into the kitchen and sat at the table. But the reader will likely be happier just to know that I sat down.

I also began to think about adverbs. I love them. But they don’t bring that much to the party if all they do is confirm action for the reader. If instead, I save them for moments when my protagonist surprises the reader, when actions surprise — he was stubbornly elated — adverbs are more powerful. Chop, chop, chop.

At the end of June, the threshing, as I came to call these new revisions, the machete-way-clearing, was done. Chaff removed. Wheat remained. Thoughts made accessible. Word count? 77,518.

Did I mourn the absent words? Maybe, for the briefest of moments. But the revisions empowered me. I know that I can tell my story in stronger ways. In ways that will connect me more profoundly to readers. I took my thresher and my machete and opened the memoir up, and it felt good. And my concerns over voice were unfounded. If anything, my voice rings louder, truer.

Let go of ego. (It’s not as hard as you think.)

Breathe.

Thresh.

Smile.

You’ve got this!

Brian Watson is currently preparing a proposal for his first memoir, Crying in a Foreign Language; Pink Lady, Fictional Girlfriends, and the Deity that Answered my Plea. Originally from New York State, he now lives in the Seattle after years in Massachusetts, Tōkyō, and British Columbia. He spends his days with his partner/spouse of twenty-eight years, Hiro, and a cantankerous old cat, Butters. His website is http://iambrianwatson.com/

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