Wrestling with Words: James Salter on Editing

I am certain I’m not alone in saying that editing is my least favorite part about the writing process. Late nights grappling for inspiration, dozing off as I stare helplessly at the blinking cursor in a Word document, struggling to get to know my characters better—I’d take all that over the teeth-pulling-madness that is editing and revising. I came across this interview with James Salter on the Paris Review today, and his words were so enlightening:

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise as you go?

SALTER

It depends, but normally, no. I write big sections and then let them sit. It’s dangerous not to let things age, and if something is really good, you should put it away for a month.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of the sentence or the paragraph as an organizing unit?

SALTER

Normally I just go a sentence at a time. I find the most difficult part of writing is to get it down initially because what you have written is usually so terrible that it’s disheartening, you don’t want to go on. That’s what I think is hard—the discouragement that comes from seeing what you have done. This is all you could manage?

INTERVIEWER

You give a lot of attention to the weight and character of individual words.

SALTER

I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read. Read full review »

First, I just have to give a shout out to one of the many amazing faculty members of the Converse MFA program Leslie Pietrzyk who introduced me to the Paris Review. She has given me some of the best writing advice of anyone I’ve ever known, and she posts much of her wisdom on her blog, which you should totally check out.

I am wholeheartedly obsessed right now with the author reviews published on the Paris Review’s website—especially so because they are free to the public. If you’re serious about writing, you have to check these out. They are chock full of amazing advice by some of the greatest authors from the last century.

But now back to my original point.

I’ve always hated editing, but Salter’s words here cause me to reconsider that hatred. Words are sacred—I’m struggling to find a more addquate word to describe them—and therefore they deserve to be delicately handled, to receive such focused attention. When I read this interview, I began to feel like a hypocrite. Can I love to write but hate to edit? Like Salter points out, first drafts are pitiful, underdeveloped glimpses of the final product. And without the edits, without wrestling with the words for a bit, nothing great happens. So maybe I should rethink my stance on editing. Maybe I should—gasp—look forward to it.

I do think it’s interesting, though, his articulations about the writing process: “I find the most difficult part of writing is to get it down initially because what you have written is usually so terrible that it’s disheartening, you don’t want to go on.” I never really thought about it before, but it’s true. That loathsome read-through of the first draft is really what’s so torturous about editing, right? The coming face to face with the reality that your first thoughts are so incomplete, so unbearable to read, so far from what you hoped they would be. It’s not the wrestling with words, per se; it’s the wrestling with inadequacy that can come as a slap in the face.

I guess I’m not alone in this. And I guess this is my burden—our burden—to bear. But in the end, the outcome justifies the frustration, and it is all totally and completely worth it. I’m rethinking my stance on editing now because I’ve been reminded the true value it holds.

Header photo courtesy of Nic’s events.

4 thoughts on “Wrestling with Words: James Salter on Editing

  1. I think I must be strange as a writer, because editing has always been my favorite part. That’s the point when you take words and change them into a story, or a poem, or whatever it is you want them to be. It’s where writing develops all of its shape and meaning and impact, and I often find the editing process is when I find out what it is I’ve been trying to say all along, which is always exciting for me.

    One of my favorite things to read when I feel that frustration and hopelessness of “This is all you could manage?” when looking at my writing is “Shitty First Drafts” from Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird. It’s the most comforting thing in the world to me–a reminder that every writer out there faces the same frustration and exasperation at their own awful writing before delving into the editing process.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Katie. I agree that the word-by-word wrestling is certainly an exciting process. And I think that’s what I discovered while reading that interview with Salter—it’s not that I hate editing, really; it’s that I hate the prerequisite task of reading over my feeble attempts at writing. So I guess it’s a matter of nomenclature when it all comes down to it.

      On that Lamott book, I have had a handful of writers suggest it to me within the last month or so, so I think providence is giving me some kind of a sign here. I will definitely have to get that thing downloaded on my iPad. It sounds wonderful.

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