On Editing

Most of my readers should have already downloaded and read the July 2008 edition of Pragati. If you have been remiss, please do so now. It is focused on India’s foreign policy and contains many high-quality articles, as Pragati always does.

Here are some thoughts on writing and editing, based on the few months of poring over submissions and editing that I have done as an editor of Pragati:

  1. If you are a novice writer, the word limit is your friend. Virtually every tenet of good writing that you follow will result in a reduction in your word count. If you approach the problem from the other end, i.e., if you set your focus entirely on reducing your word count, you will find that you are writing well.

  2. Following the principles of good writing will make you a good writer, but it will not make you a great writer. Great writing requires that extra “something” which cannot be stated in terms of principles.

  3. But that extra “something” is not extra word count. Great writing is enjoyable even when it is long; one should not conclude from this that it is enjoyable because it is lengthy.

  4. If you think that you have written a great piece even though it is long, you can verify its greatness by trying to reduce the word count. If it is really good, you will feel the pain when you try to cut. If you are too softhearted, you should give it to someone who is more brutal with his knives. That person does not have to be a better writer than you. He just has to be a different person from you.

  5. Virtually anything that is suitable for Pragati can be made really short and convey the “essence” of the information. This is not to say that the shortest version is the right version – you will want to convey much more than the bare essentials. The point is that this is in contrast with a well-written travelogue, a “feature” or a novel, where cutting out the descriptive details can destroy the piece.

  6. That you are writing a travelogue is not an excuse to abandon brevity. If you are writing a 1000 page novel, there is more reason to be brief.

  7. Point no. 5 suggests that writing the precis first and then expanding upon it is a good way to write an article. I am not sure, though, because I never do it that way. However, I never have a problem keeping within a word limit. In fact, when I am writing under word limit constraints, I tend to finish with hundreds of words to spare and then worry about what the hell I can add more.

  8. The extension of point no. 5 is that if you cannot convey the essence of your article in 200 words, it should probably be more than one article.

  9. It is a lot easier to edit a clumsily written article than a well-written article. I can make indiscriminate cuts to the former and rewrite whole paragraphs. I cannot do this for well-written articles. My worst fear is that I will get a well-written article that is way over the word limit. The cuts I need to make will cause me physical pain.

  10. The second worst fear is that I get a well-written article written in a substantially different style from mine (or Pragati’s). When editing that, there is a substantial risk that I will make it worse.

  11. Surprisingly, editing an article I utterly disagree with is not very difficult.

Finally, one opinion on writing that I have changed my mind about during my editing tenure is on the value of the personal pronoun. Nitin wanted “I” to be avoided. I didn’t see the point of opinion pieces forcing the writer to avoid using “I”. Now, enforcing the guideline on multiple articles, I see that it does improve the writing. In an opinion piece, the “I think” is assumed, and is therefore redundant. The only purpose it serves is as a disclaimer. You are saying, “hey, I think so, but I may be wrong.” The disclaimer is useful if your opinion is a matter of taste or preference, but readers of Pragati don’t care about your tastes or preferences. They will agree or disagree with your views based on how soundly you back it with reasons. Avoiding the “I” will force you to give those reasons.

The only exception to this norm that I can think of is when you have to talk of your personal experiences. There you may need to use the “I”.

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