Editing bits

Writing is rarely current-like, it is nearly always tidal. You can create the conditions and put in the effort, yet it seems to arrive mostly on its own schedule. In contrast, I've usually found editing to be more mechanical and procedural. Writing ebbs, editing is a bit more continuous and more pliable to being pushed along. There is plenty of scope to add flourishes, it can still be creative, yet editing is more like checking a row of bricks or inspecting the components of an engine. It's about getting the bits cleaned and in order. And so, because it is more like inspection, it can be managed and cajoled a bit more than writing. Reaching the editing stage usually means that the end is in sight, and most of the heavy lifting has already been done, maybe that gives it more momentum. Usually that's the case anyway, but things have been a bit different this time around.

I've used what writing time I've had during 2021 to focus on keeping a book project moving. I've been focusing on this book since 2019, with the planning before that I've probably been working on it for around three years. During that time I've had to replan its contents at least four times. I nearly abandoned it at one point, simply because I couldn’t find a hook to help the chapters to cohere. The research itself was disruptive, it kept unseating my ideas. As I learned things during the research process the plan had to alter. The original structure fell apart as the sections developed. I had some chapter ideas that stood-up but it was the overall jigsaw that wasn't fitting together. The Super Furry Animals’ song The International Language of Screaming came to mind: “Spell it out, rip it up, rearrange it on the contrary”.

What I'm hoping was the crucial moment came when I looked at two chapters I’d drafted and realised they said almost the opposite thing to each other. A problem. Then it clicked, these difference might tell us something. So, I’ve made that the focus of the book. It's about contrasts. Then I wrote two more chapters that did the same thing, they said the opposite of each other. Turning it around from there was a bit of a struggle, handling and containing contrasts has been quite difficult. Plus it's a book about algorithms, a tricky topic in itself. I'm currently at the stage of reading and editing a complete manuscript.

The struggle with these steps led me to reflect a little on how I do things. Once I have a full draft, my usual approach is to read things from start to finish three times. The first read through focuses on bigger additions and cuts, it takes the longest time. The second read continues with this, picking up on any significant changes that were missed the first time. This then moves toward focusing more on typos and small corrections by the third read. As the knots get unpicked, each read-through gets easier, usually. The only problem with this approach is that you start to know the content too well, making it difficult to imagine reading it as a reader might. This approach also worked less well when I was working with an incomplete draft and because I had to edit whilst at the same time trying to rework the overall structure and argument.

I can't remember where I saw it, I think it might have been in an interview with a magazine editor, but I recall some advice that suggested that when editing you should try to focus only on the sentences, treating each as a separate entity. This just means shutting out the context and trying to only make sure that each sentence works in its own right. So by the third read through, that's what I try to do. The argument is usually all there, as far as I’m able to build one at least, I'm just trying to smooth individual lines as much as possible. I take the sentences as the the focus. By that stage it is often hard to see the bigger picture of the piece anyway.

A strange mix of familiarity and surprise can often be found on that third read through. The material has been thought about so much by this step that it is etched on the memory, yet there are also chunks of content or combinations of thoughts that had been forgotten. Sometimes there are even a few surprises: I wonder why I phrased a particular passage in the way I had, or why I included certain phrases, or how certain bits didn't get edited on previous reads. Certain things seems to avoid the radar. There are sometimes even quotes that I don’t remember finding and including. And then there are the bits that were almost written on auto-pilot. These bits can be fine, but other times the edit needs to be used to try to bring them to life (or get rid of them).

Because of the premiliminary editing that was needed to rework the argument before I even moved to my usual triple reading, I feel like I'm a bit too close to this book at the moment. So I've been leaving a gap before I do the third read through. More distance was needed. I'm hoping it will be ready to send off to the publishers after this run through. The bit of breathing space I'm giving it might mean that I will spot some further changes though.

I've reminded myself that no book is ever really finished, there is always more that could have been done. It’s more a case of stopping at a moment that seems right. Giving a text three read-throughs gives me an endpoint, it defines the time when I need to accept its form and hand it over. Once it's been read through three times the hand-over step has been reached.

These stages I've established for myself have been interrupted this time, I’ve had to bring the editing forward into the writing stage in order to try to bring the book together. This book has been written in lots of very short bursts of writing, rather than through more sustained periods of time. The circumstances have meant that the writing has been less tidal and more sporadic. I'm finding that that also means that there are a few more joins that need to be polished in the edit. The dispersed writing has meant a more disjointed text to edit. The read-throughs have had to be slower and even more prone to mechanical inspection. The short bursts of work mean that the text was a little bitty. So the reading process has also been a little more stop-start and spread-out. Even more than usual, I've found myself editing bits.

Here are four short pieces that I’ve had published over the last few weeks:

Me and Ben Jacobsen also appeared together on Chris Till's Digital Sociology podcast to discuss our book. Information about the episode is here and you can listen here or on the usual podcast apps.