The Commons: Editing as Asceticism
Graceful expression takes fewer words than you think.
A full-time copy editor for many years, I have become a great admirer of short books. Not once have I finished a project and thought, “That should have been a hundred pages longer.” More often I’d like to tell the author, “Cut the word count by a third, and you’d have a pretty decent book.” Anyone can write a long book. The grace of brevity is much more dearly bought.
At the outset of the Summa theologiae—emphatically not a short book, but one I admire nonetheless—Thomas Aquinas says that reason alone can come to know many of the truths of divine revelation. Yet without grace, these truths “would only be known by a few . . . and with the admixture of many errors.” Even if we got everything right, which is unlikely, we wouldn’t know it.
At the risk of sounding perverse, good editing plays a role akin to this purgative aspect of grace. All the right sentences are so often already there—but with “the admixture of many errors.” Yet in the purifying fire of editorial judgment, stylistic impurities are burned away like straw. Granted, there may be precious little left when the purging is done. The graceful expression of the true is indeed a work of profoundest ascesis. Yet it is rarely done alone. When we let another come to us who has eyes to see what is unlovely—and the ability to ruthlessly strip it away—the writing process is as painful as sanctification.