“I have always been a good editor of my own work. I’ve tried to teach my writing friends that there are two arts: number one, getting a thing done; and then, the second great art is learning how to cut it so you don’t kill it or hurt it in any way. When you start out life as a writer, you hate that job, but now that I’m older it’s turned into a
wonderful game, and I love the challenge just as much as writing the original… It’s an intellectual challenge to get a scalpel and cut the patient without killing.”
Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
One of the things I love most about Ray Bradbury is the absolute joy he takes in writing — he loves it — and it shows. You’ve got to love a guy who started out hating editing but came to see it as a “wonderful game.”
In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray tells a story about writing the screenplay for his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (wow, what a great title!). When director Jack Clayton was working with him on the movie script, Ray, ever enthusiastic and prolific,
produced a 260-page screenplay. That would translate into a six-hour movie.
Here’s how Ray described what happened next: “Jack said, ‘Well, now you’ve got to cut out forty pages. I said, ‘God, I can’t.’ He said, ‘Go ahead, I know you can do it. I’ll be behind you.’ So I cut forty pages out. He said, ‘OK, now you’ve got to cut another forty pages out.’ I got it down to 180 pages, and then Jack said, ‘Thirty more.’ I said, ‘Impossible, impossible!’ Okay, I got it down to 150 pages. And Jack said, ‘Thirty more.’ Well, he kept telling me I could do it, and by God, I went through a final time and got it down to 120 pages. It was better.”
“It was better” — what a punch line! And how often that’s true of skillful editing: It reveals the true story inside a story. How did Jack help Ray get there with his film script. It all came down to what Ray called “compression” — tightening dialogue, and coming up with
“compact images” to show what he wanted to more succinctly. One of the things that Ray said helped him most in this massive cutting project was his knowledge of poetry, because poetry is all about metaphor and imagery. As Ray put it, “If you can find the right metaphor, the right image, and put it in a scene, it can replace four pages of dialogue.”
So often, we think of editing as a chore — a self-inflicted hatchet job. But if we can approach it as our boy Ray came to — as “an intellectual challenge” and a “wonderful game” in which we get to play with metaphor, imagery, and compression, we can transform it from a difficult task to a delightful triumph. Write on!