I will turn in one direction sometimes that looks a rational choice when I make the turn, but will prove a digression in retrospect. I am already digressing, and this is what I want to do first, explore the two kinds of essay writing, what I call the English and the Continental.
The English essay is a part of the formal education in the USA and in the UK from high school to colleges. It has a clear structure (an introductory paragraph with a thesis statement, a body of 3-4 paragraphs, etc). It has its types (compare/contrast, cause/effect, etc). You can always be sure where you are, what to expect. If you ever get lost, you just jump to the beginning of the paragraph and find a topic sentence there. Easy to read and easy to write, because you do not have to think, so to speak. Of course, it takes work to come up with a topic, then outline it, then put flesh on the skeleton. It is a “write by numbers” experience.
The Continental essay is practiced sporadically, it has no schools, no rockstars, no fan base. It goes back to Montaigne’s tradition, to the original meaning of the French word essayer: to attempt. It has no uniform structure, because it is about discovering a topic, sometimes even the topic is a bit hazy, the writer does not exactly know where to start, it will unfold only during the journey of writing. It is exploratory in nature, it digresses, jumps, and dances, it sometimes sits on the grass to watch the sunset. (Yes, you are reading a Continental essay now.)
Writing an exploratory essay takes more courage, because you do not know if you will end up in a swamp or you will find a satisfactory conclusion. It is like exploring a foreign town, you cannot tell upfront if it will be a renaissance statue or a cozy restaurant you stumble upon, all you know is you want to look around, and given your curiosity, you must find something worth the long walk. Unfortunately, not all towns have the treasures you are open to. I still remember the city of Epidavros in Greece, a vibrant town in ancient times, now the home of a cement factory. No amount of walking could reveal any exciting secret to me, although it could have been an amazing location for someone with an eye for industrial buildings. I may write an exploratory essay that leads nowhere, and I end up trashing hours or days of work.
This is the danger that takes courage to face. If you face the unknown, you better prepare for it by practicing activities you think could serve you. For the big journey a discoverer needs an iron body, knowledge of snakes to spot a venomous one. He does pushups to prepare and run a few miles every day; he studies books on biology. Similarly, a writer needs to practice with the tools of their profession before a more ambitious undertaking. She enumerates arguments for breakfast, she compares and contrasts items in the grocery store. And this is what college essays are for: to practice. They are only tools that will hopefully help you when writing a real essay, an attempt.
We explored the bush, now let’s get back to the road. Here is the reason why I started this essay: I do not like editing. I have a friend who published many books, he says he can use his energy either to revisit the book he finished, or to start a new one. He chooses to start a new one. How tempting! Then I read his books, I can almost hear his voice while reading. He describes an idea, then looks at it from a different angle, he rewords the same thing over and over again. It is pure exploratory style I enjoy so much when talking with him for hours over a single espresso. But reading it is cumbersome. It is editing his books need.
I know editing is useful, but I still do not like it. When it comes to editing I am stuck. What are the exercises I have to practice? Where do I start? When do I finish and say it is good enough? Some writers say editing is the best part. For them writing is when they dig up the raw material from the ground, it is dirty and amorphous, it does not resemble their original vision. Editing is the act of taking the raw material, removing what is superfluous, and polishing it until it shines, until it reflects the creator’s light. How convincing! Now editing feels a different profession than writing (which it actually is in professional publishing), like diamond digging is different from diamond cutting.
There are many professions we can use as metaphors for editing. Take software development, it has two phases, writing the code (this is what you can see in movies) and refactoring it. Refactoring means the programmer is trying to keep the functionality intact while making the internals of the code more understandable for her fellow programmers. There are no professionals who specialized in code refactoring, some even question its usefulness, because it doesn’t add to the value of the code. The law of diminishing returns is applied ruthlessly at IT companies, you can hear an hour long heated discussion whether or not it is worth putting in a ten-minute extra effort. If we use programming as a metaphor for editing, it will be a second class citizen in the writing business.
Or we can use the metaphor of the diamond cutter. She examines the rough first and makes a plan. She has to balance a number of factors, the weight, the shape, and many others. She wants to keep as much as she can, while giving it an ideal shape. What an ideal shape changes by the current fashion, and by nature too. The octahedron crystal of the diamond is easier to process in a certain angle, this is how a sculptor thinks who is cautious not to carve the material in a direction it doesn’t like, because it may cause a rapture. Modern 3D imaging techniques can reveal flaws and inclusions in the rough which the diamond cutter also takes into account. And this is only the planning. Then she sits down and starts to “just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like the Koh-i-noor” she had in mind (to paraphrase Michelangelo, a sculptor of larger scales). In this case, chipping away can mean up to 50 percent of the weight of the rough.
I like the diamond cutter’s metaphor, because it tells me I cannot add anything to my raw material. My draft has its potential, it will shine if polished properly, it has its flaws that I have to remove or workaround or just compromise to leave. But adding to it is not possible. After all diamond is the hardest material in the world, writing is more flexible, but this metaphor teaches me to exercise self-discipline and follow some rules,
- Find what lies hidden in the rough, the shape that needs the least chipping away. Yes, using those restrictive essay and paragraph types taught at college.
- Find the best parts that are to be highlighted. How can you highlight them without a pencil, using only an eraser?
- Identify the flaws. How will you handle them? Cut them mercilessly? Or move them to a darker corner of the text?
- Chip away at least 10 percent of the material, but not more than 30. Clench your teeth and remove that 10 percent even if your text is crying.
- Do you really need to add a sentence? Perhaps it’s enough to rewrite one.
This is the end of our walking tour, we have arrived to this lovely square where a marble tablet stands with the diamond cutters’ rules of editing. All I have to do now is go back to the beginning of this text and follow the rules.