#102: How I’m Editing, May 2015

Rowing machines in a row, audienced toward a semicircular stage. Wood floors. No people.
Belle Isle Boat House, Belle Isle Park, Detroit, MI

I print out the full manuscript at 1.2 line-spacing with a wide right margin of 3+ inches. In other words so the text block appears more closely the way it appears in a printed book. I can’t remember how long I’ve been doing this but I know I started doing it because of a manuscript page of The Great Gatsby I’d seen in a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (and misremembered):

The wide margin works because I tend to write longer notes and the standard double-spaced manuscript format leaves little room. Before I would change the document back to standard format after printing but this week I wondered, Why not just leave it? So I left it.

I sit on my couch with the printed pages and a pencil, and bracket out sentences and paragraphs along the way that need to be removed, rethought, or rewritten. When I’m couch-reading I’m looking for plot, flow, thematic resonance. I’ll correct typos and missing words but try not to rewrite sentences as I find it too easy to get caught up in the details; sometimes a comma will tend to feel either missing or superfluous depending on the mood I’m in. Instead I scribble notes about what’s missing from a chapter, or about the role of a paragraph: to introduce X, to echo Y, to make joke about Z. Basically, an ex post facto outline (which is the only kind of outline I really find useful). This helps me see past the sentences and paragraphs I’ve grown attached to – like, I’m literally just reading down the margin – to the reasons they exist.

I finish reading and marking up the printed manuscript, which for the draft I’m working on now takes two or three days. I put the stack on my desk to the left of my laptop. This is where it will stay until the edit is finished. The morning I start the new draft, I peel off a few chapters from the top of the stack and read them over at my desk, making additional notes if necessary. Then I start typing. As I finish editing each chapter I put the pages face down to the left of the original stack. Visual progress. Sometimes, especially when I’ve made a lot of changes to a chapter, I’ll print it out again and take it for a couch-read. Then back to the computer. When I’m through with these new printouts I just throw them away.

Right now as I type this my face-down stack is twenty-five pages thick. The face-up stack is a hundred and one pages. Deadline is August.