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Some Thoughts on Editing: The Rivers and Mountains School

by James Powell

Writing and editing can be tough. One problem concerns vision: courting - with any degree of success - the flow of creativity. Then follows revision, the editing process itself: controlling and directing that creative current into something both compelling and correct.

What follows is a consideration of both problems and a glimpse at some of the things I try to ferret out when editing anything, whether a collection of short stories, a doctoral dissertation written according to APA specs, a novel, a magazine article, a web site, or a work of creative nonfiction.

It is no secret that in our image-centered, digitalized culture word craft and even literacy have fallen by the wayside. Many are able to quote Lady Gaga but not Octavio Paz, Shakespeare, or Li Bai. In cultures such as ancient China, however, facility in the literary arts, honed through intense study of the long literary tradition, was essential if one wanted to gain any position of merit.

Thus, in preparation for the civil service exams the typical young Chinese scholar would for years roam in his mind through the vast forest of the classics: through sensuous poetic images, gentle and graceful odes, convincing essays, elegies painful and tangled, and songs devoted to ancestors. There he would hunt for knowledge and inspiration. He knew that one day he would be judged on how dazzling his metaphors, how precise and convincing his arguments, how elegant and balanced his style, how rhythmic his cadences, how fine his distinctions, how powerful his central phrase.

If he had talent he might snare an obscure line neglected by generations of scholars, illumining its complex darkness until it seemed simple and self-revealing. Responding to the strictures of ancient conventions and laws of composition, his lines would nevertheless flow like water in a moonlit river, like shining silk pulled from a cocoon. If he had meditated well on the writings of the ancients, he might become a model for all men, his speeches might help salvage a sinking branch of government, his military odes - brilliant as shining jade veins in a mountain of bureaucratic prose - might inspire an entire army to victory.

If the young Chinese scholar could sit down with the manuscripts I receive daily from all over the world, he would quickly discover that their authors face the same problems that writers in ancient China were alert to and conversed about regularly, and humorously. From them we have much to learn about vision and revision.

Rivers: The Way of Vision

Typically, we will find a writer hunched over a desk all day - brooding darkly - rummaging about mentally for a even a hint of inspiration. As one Chinese poet put it,

I search for it all day, in vain.

Then, at last, it comes to me by itself.

One of his colleagues joked, "It is a description of a lost cat."

That is an apt metaphor, and although creativity can be felinely evasive, Chinese writers found ways to make it purr. One of their favorite strategies was stillness. This is because more fundamental than the field of thinking is the vast luminosity of the field of being, which is beyond thought. Have you ever noticed that if you tromp up some trail, you don't see much wildlife, but that if you recline idly beneath a tree for a spell, some of nature's creatures will begin to present themselves? Similarly, in prayer and meditation, when the mind - beyond thought - becomes suddenly tranquil, the floodgates of inspiration open.

Though Taoist Chinese writers could find inspiration through stillness, other Chinese literati, their minds confined to the field of thought, sometimes resorted to skillful shoplifting. Only the most oafish writer, however, would steal actual words from others. A more subtle plagiarist would lift an idea, but change the diction. The highest form of theft, however, would not leave much evidence. The most skilled thief would simply submerge himself in the ocean of masterpieces until his soul was flooded with inspiration.

When pent-up waters of creativity do burst forth and push forward, they often do so with unconstrained energy. Out of the blue, the spirit of the writer finds itself drowning in chaotic floods. Obscure divagations, spiritual fiddlings, poesies of form and phoneme, all liquefy into being from formless and silent light. As they surge forth, they ignite one another with their own energy and momentum. Capable of coursing anywhere, beyond any rules, how can such outpourings be channeled into the intricate, resonant patterns of sound and meaning, tone and image, that constitute elegant but alluring word craft?

Balance is the key. If the writer lacks restraint, the piece may be overflowing with emotion, vitality, and earnestness, but lack dignity. If the writer has inspiration but is overly constrained by tradition and grammar, the writing might be agreeable but lack vigor. Its form might be lofty and subtle but incapable of sustaining an argument. Its diction may be iridescent but the principle it conveys lackluster. Or it might be perfectly harmonious but lacking in emotion.

In achieving balance the writer or editor must walk the border between laziness and hard work. This requires a passion both for idleness and for sharp judgment. The writer or editor must consciously polish a text though a keen sensitivity to the relationship between its inspired, spontaneous generation and the toil needed to perfect it.

Mountains: The Way of Revision

Swelling through distant passes, black cloud formations bruise the sky. Along high slopes, massed young pines stand haughtily erect. Dizzy precipices gather blue hues. Ethereal curtains of water arc forward, sailing into nothingness. In dark gorges, obscure grottoes - thunder. The mountains turn cool in the darkening rain. Churning and lunging over rumbling boulders, waters drag along uprooted trees. They push through narrow gorges, booming like cannon and plunging between cliffs split by their roar.

When the rivers of creativity do burst forth, they are formless. Yet, they must find form within the folds of the unyielding mountains of traditional usage. In revising and editing, the editor channels these unruly floods of inventiveness in the same way a landscape of mountains and valleys channels the immense energy and roiling currents of rivers. Whereas the river, left to itself, follows no pattern, the landscape's management of its energy proceeds according to established principles. There are countless ways the land can gracefully guide liquid energy, taming even whirlpools. Although mountains and valleys impose restrictions, the flow itself, from moment to moment, is never the same.

Channeling creativity involves an intimate knowledge of the literary tradition, and with this comes a keen sensitivity to such subtleties as ambiguity, to specificity, to concision, to redundancy, to believability, to pacing, and to avoidance of clichés.

First among these is unintentional ambiguity. The classic example in Chinese literature concerns a government official who built a meditation room for himself. On a rock outside, he inscribed the following verse:

Even if I am overwhelmed with business, I come here once a day.

Often, I come at midnight, carrying a lantern.

When another poet read these lines, he laughed, saying, "This poem is about going to the outhouse!"

Such unwitting ambiguity should be avoided in didactic compositions and explanatory essays, which should impress with precision and logic and must be accurate and convincing. For example, the publication manual of the American Psychological Association asserts that when writing a paper for a journal or a dissertation for a university one must not use the word "since" (when used to mean "because"), because "since" can also denote the passage of time. If, for example, an author writes, "Because the nova exploded, the universe has changed," the meaning is clear and unambiguous. Having read the sentence, the reader is finished with it. However, if the author writes, "Since the nova exploded, the universe has changed," the possibilities for meaning are not exhausted with one reading. The reader must disambiguate the phrase in order to continue. This complicates the reading process.

Although in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction it is good for meanings to echo on, in academic prose, it is forbidden. The best medicine for unintentional ambiguity is specificity, our second area of concern. If you want to be specific when you are writing about New York, for instance, do not describe a city that could be anywhere in the world. Or, if you mean "although," don't write "while," which can also denote a span of time. It's all about using exactly the right word in exactly the right place.

Often, a single, specific word can transform a bland line of poetry or prose into something stunning. When an ancient Chinese poet wrote of the silver river of the Milky Way in a cloudy sky, he could have written something as inapt as the following:

The clouds dissipate the sky's silver river.

Instead, he wrote something more specific, because more aqueous:

The clouds dilute the sky's silver river.

A third thorny area writers face concerns concision. If a writer is not aware of the beauty of restraint, which draws the reader in, the editor must ruthlessly prune and chop up endless ramblings into shorter expressions. Just as in painting, a few simple strokes can suggest a fish more than thousands can, a writer of verse or fiction can evoke much by mere implication. Even writers of APA dissertations are warned against wordiness.

A fourth area of concern is redundancy, as in the following verse:

The young lotus trembles as fish sport.

Dew drops sprinkle down as birds scatter.  

Each line presents a different subject, verb, and object, but both convey a similar idea. Although such parallelism can be charming, it should not be overused. Furthermore, a writer may use repetition for emphasis or rhythm, but this must always be handled with sensitivity so that the subtleties of rhythm do not degenerate into a mere mechanical beat.

A fifth area of concern is that writing must be believable. Expressions that don't ring true cause readers to revolt. Yet, almost all writers are blind to such expressions. Suppose, for instance, it is the darkest of moonless nights on a country road. A guy's old Ford breaks down. The jalopy doesn't even have any juice left in the battery. If the driver reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out a match and a cigarette, the writer describing him has committed a grave and unforgivable error. After all, an observant reader will ask, "If the night is really so dark, how come the guy can find those things so easily? Why isn't he fumbling and fishing around to find that stuff?"

This error can happen when the mind of the writer becomes so overly absorbed in his feeling of a scene that he just assumes his readers can feel what he is feeling, although his actual expressions are inadequate. Or, if he is simply lazy or rushed, it can become tempting for him just to skip ahead and jot down the next image or idea before having fleshed out the first. If the writer cannot slow down enough to put meat on his thoughts, he will risk losing the reader's trust.

This is one reason why writers put their egos behind them and show their work to other writers or editors. In fact, many Chinese teachings on writing involve poets arguing minutely or joking about verse. One famous teaching on believability involves a poet who penned some lines bearing the title "Early Plum Blossoms."

In the next village - deep snow.

Last night, several branches blossomed.

A fellow poet gained fame merely by pointing out the obvious: that early plum blossoms sneak out only on one branch at a time. Had the author of the poem taken the time, he would have seen the problem himself.

Writing believable expressions extends also to areas such as character development and dialect. Not only must writers flesh out their characters, but they must do so in ways that make each character unique. If each character acts without distinction and speaks with the same dialect and speech patterns as the narrator, the writer has much work to do.

Writing believably is often associated with a sixth problem - pacing. When writers write too hastily, they often do so because vision is instantaneous, whereas placing a series of apt words on paper is time-consuming labor. Writers do not want to break the spell of vision, and so avoid the toil. They rush ahead when they should be forging ahead slowly, equally intent on feeling and form. This can lead to a plot that unfolds too rapidly, in which the author merely summarizes rather than drawing readers into the story through lush descriptions of character and a relaxed unfolding of time.

If you find yourself merely sketching in your characters or arguments, slow down and consider reading a few pages of the Russian novel Oblamov, in which the first three hundred pages are devoted to the protagonist contemplating whether to get out of bed or not.

A seventh area of concern is avoidance of clichés. The line "blossoms come in spring" could be praised for its simplicity, but is too obvious and bland. "Plum blossoms in October," however, wakes up the reader. Contemporary writers, who know they must immediately win a potential customer's attention, have taken this point to heart. Annie Dillard's title "Teaching a Stone to Talk" works so well because it is so strikingly odd. Such a strategy, however, may have become the new cliché. In fact, these days it has become so rare to happen upon a contemporary title that is not arresting that one begins to welcome the plain allure of something as understated as the following, by Japanese master Hiroyuki Itsuki: Twelve Chapters on Love.

Before ending, I would like to say something about punctuation, which many writers feel is not so important. However, whenever I edit a work, one of the first things I will scrutinize is the use of commas. This yields immediate insight into the mind of the writer. After all, many writers just want to express their creative impulses and not bother with such tiny details. I sympathize. After all, commas, those minute specks of ink, are the worker ants of writing. They must toil away setting off compound sentences, adverbial clauses or phrases, adjectival phrases or clauses, introductory participial phrases, parenthetical elements, interjections, transitional adverbs, elements of direct address, appositives, coordinate adjectives, complimentary or antithetical phrases, mistaken junctions, identical or similar words, elliptical constructions, quotations, elements in a series, titles, address, and dates. Who would want to bother with them?

Yet, it is imperative to know how to use punctuation. I'll give you a good example. Does the following sentence make any sense to you?

"Paul where Ringo had had had had had had had had had had had the professors approval however."

I'll give you a little hint: The sentence describes Paul and Ringo's answers on a grammar test on verb tense. Still can't figure it out?

Now let's look at it with correct punctuation:

"Paul, where Ringo had had "had had," had had "had"; "had had" had had the professor's approval, however.

When commas are misused, however, they can present tremendous problems. Consider the following sentence:

"What's that on the wall, mother?"

As it is written, it could mean either that someone is asking mother what is on the wall, or is asking someone if it is mother who is on the wall. This ambiguity could be avoided either by rephrasing,

"Mother, what's that on the wall?"

or by re-punctuating:

"What's that on the wall? Mother?!"

You may be wondering about the question mark followed immediately by an exclamation point. This is called an interrobang or interabang and in English is acceptable only in informal writing such as comic books.

Many writers assume readers should be able to just naturally figure out what a sloppily punctuated sentence is getting at. Such writers are really writing only for themselves and so require neither commas nor editors.