Literary Magazine

Form and Content: The Art of Editing


According to Stephen King, to write is human, to edit divine. Anyone who writes will see sense in this. Especially poets.

The Old English word for a poet is ‘Scop’ which translates literally as ‘shaper’. What else is poetry but an exercise in constant editing? And what else is editing but shaping and giving form to something? That is why Stephen King calls it divine. It is the most important part of writing, all writing but especially poetry and fiction, or creative writing.

Many people will know about the importance of Ezra Pound’s editing on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Some would even argue that Pound deserved to be credited as co-author of the piece. This is a great example of the importance of editing, but I would argue that editing goes beyond what Pound did with Eliot’s poem. I would argue that the act of writing poetry itself is the same as the act of editing. T.S. Eliot is renowned as a great poet and critic but, like all great poets, he is a great editor also. And I’m not referring here to his work on the literary magazine, The Criterion. That is a different kind of editing altogether. Making poetry is a constant rewriting that only ends when you decide that enough is enough. In other words, editing is interminable, so you must accept that your piece will never be perfect and make the decision about where to stop.

Stephen King declares that editing is more important than writing but my argument is that, especially in poetry, editing is writing. This recalls Oscar Wilde’s notion that all art is style – that there is no such thing as substance. If this is a step too far for you to take, then you might consider King’s elevation of form over content. Quentin Tarantino’s films are often criticized for having little substance. This is true, but I would argue that, far from being a flaw in the films, it is the triumph of style over substance that makes the films great.

I believe that the impulse to create is an impulse to edit or give shape. Consider the sculptor. He chips away at a block of stone until he has given shape to it. He works by taking away, not adding, and this is what most editing does. It can be argued that the finished sculpture is already there in the block of stone. It is the act of refining, or shaping, that is the creative act. In other words, the content is not created, it is already there. It is the forming or styling that is the art.

Writers often say that some writing just flows out of them. It is like they are channelling the words. That the words are coming from somewhere outside of them. This supports the argument I’m trying to make. The content isn’t created, it comes from outside the artist. It is the form that is created. The editing or channelling is where the work of the writer is done.



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