“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there. I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”Image: Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David. Photo by Steve Barker on Unsplash.
Michelangelo’s famous quote came to me as I was struggling through the editing of a wordy, excessively detailed memoir by a first-time writer. Every moment leading up to an event was painstakingly recalled with almost minute-by-minute accuracy. Every step of travel to a destination. Every word in the throwaway chit-chat at the start of a conversation.
I cut away these extraneous bits – “shoe leather,” one of my college fiction instructors called it – and uncovered the real stories, the details that made the stories meaningful.
This is a lot like sculpting as Michelangelo described it, I thought. Beneath an outer layer of irrelevant facts and distracting description, a compelling story waits to be uncovered. It’s the editor’s job to uncover and reveal it, to chip away at the superfluous material and bring out the masterpiece.
You might also compare this to the process of cutting away the ugly chunks of carbon encasing what will become a brilliant gem under the hands and eyes of a skilled diamond cutter.
The editor acts as a stand-in for the reader, eliminating the extraneous to keep the writer on track. Do the facts and descriptions move the story along, or do they just distract and slow things down? Is the reader likely to care about things like how long it took a character to drive to a destination? (Ever wonder why you never see anyone hunting for a parking space in movies and TV?)
The writer must scrutinize their work with the same advocacy for the reader. Look hard at your story and read it with an editor’s neutrality. Does this fact matter? Does that one? Will the reader still be with you at the end of the journey, or has it all just been shoe leather?