Write On Wednesday: Editor at Large

This process of moving house has become an exercise in revision. For weeks, I’ve been going over all my possessions with a fine tooth comb – must I have four sets of casserole dishes? five travel mugs? half a dozen different styles of placemats? How many black purses do I really need?

So I red-pencil items like a good editor would do extraneous words, consigning them to trash bags, donation bins, Craig’s List.

It’s been surprisingly easy to jettison all this baggage, and I feel lighter and freer by the moment. I’m almost loathe to take anything at all to the new house, am delighted at the thought of being pared down to the most bare of essentials.

That’s what a well-written piece of writing is like, isn’t it? Pared down to bare essentials.

The key is knowing what words are essential.

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components,” writes William Zinsser in On Writing Well, a copy of which I found buried in a chest of drawers in my bedroom during yesterday’s cleaning. “Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb which carries the same meaning that is already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what – these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”


Like my cupboards overflowing with coffee mugs and dresser drawers spilling scarves, socks, and costume jewelry, Zinsser shakes a red-ink stained finger at clutter – “the disease of American writing.”  Clear your head of it, he exhorts the writer. “Clear thinking becomes clear writing.”

But I can’t help but wonder (a phrase Zinsser would strike right through with red pen) – can things be too clear? Does writing stripped so clean and uncluttered lack some undefinable personality, a spark of cachet to endear it to the reader? This comes to mind as I peruse the top of my piano, the family photographs, the crystal candlesticks, the tiny sculpture of a woman with arms spread wide in joy. Each of these items could be classified as clutter, yet each one means something to me. Like beautiful, descriptive language, each one adds a touch of beauty to the room.

It’s a fine line, this process of revision.

What to leave in. What to leave out.

While my impulse at this moment is to clear out all the clutter, when all is said and done will I survey my surroundings and feel that something is missing?

The challenge is to strike a balance between the two.

I hope I’m up for it.



14 thoughts on “Write On Wednesday: Editor at Large

  1. That’s a great analogy. While moving, you might chance upon old treasures in the attic or the basement too. Just like sections in old drafts cast aside in some long-forgotten past! Liked the post!

    • Thank you 🙂 I can only hope to come across some “buried” treasure somewhere in this house!

      (Yesterday I did find some cash I’d stashed away a long time ago for safekeeping – that was an unexpected surprise!)

  2. I’m happy to report that Mr. Zinsser doesn’t cross out in red ink. He sets off clutter with lightly penciled brackets, leaving the decision to the writer.

  3. What an apt parallel. This is a most practical post, great advice for us all, Becca, and a joy to read. I can definitely empathize… oh the burden of excess, and the difficulty of deciding what to leave in or out. 😉

    • Thanks, Arti. I’ve never moved before (unless you count moving from my childhood home to this house when I got married at age 20), so I’m learning an awful lot about what’s really important!

  4. The interesting thing is that, when you read Zinsser’s other books, his writing is lively, interesting and not at all spare. He’s more than willing to use an unusual or less-well-known word if it’s that word that’s necessary to make the meaning clear, or create the effect he wants.

    But of course, that’s why editing is so important. It’s not just a matter of deleting, it’s a matter of choosing, adding, and rearranging as well. Just like moving and getting settled, indeed!

  5. Editing is difficult. It’s so much easier to avoid making the decision. Every decision holds the potential for rejection. Whether it’s redlining a phrase, tossing a casserole dish or sending a photo to the trashcan, editing requires time and judgement and often rejection of something we once valued. The interesting thing to me is how much lighter we feel after we’ve made the decision. The older I get, the more I value the art of streamlining, but you make a good point about the personal touches. They are the heart and soul of a piece of writing and they turn a house into a home. Good luck, Becca.

    • I’m coming to realize my greatest attachments are not necessarily to the things other might consider valuable. Sure, I have lots of Waterford crystal that was given to me for wedding presents, but it’s been locked away in a cabinet for most of the past 36 years. What I’m much more attached to are the coffee mugs we’ve been drinking out of every morning of those 36 years 🙂

      • I couldn’t agree more. When we move, I plan to sell my china and crystal and give the dining room furniture to a relative. I have no need or desire to keep it. When we entertain, it’s informal and relaxed.

  6. I’m way behind! You’re moving, eh? Very exciting! Seriously. In part, because of the wonderful weaning/cleaning process you’re now experiencing. Sounds like you’re plenty busy in terms of writing, too – no wonder you’re feeling good and floaty and accomplished. Keep us posted!

    PS The new powder room sounds perfect with its color and upcoming beachy scenes.

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