Last month, my wife and I closed on our new home in the village of Cedaredge on the wild Western Slope of Colorado. It’s a beautiful place with mature landscaping and spectacular views. Deer pass by, birds fill the trees, and the tumbling waters of Surface Creek flow just down the slope from our backyard.
To connect our property to the creek, the previous owner had poured a concrete slab on the ground to create a winding access trail. The concrete pathway seemed out of place in the otherwise rustic setting—like a sidewalk in a meadow. We decided it had to go in favor of a bucolic set of stairs constructed using natural materials.
Enter an acquaintance with stonemason skills who embraced the project. The first order of business was to pulverize the existing concrete. Joe arrived one morning with safety goggles, a 9-pound sledge hammer, and an unerring knack for striking the concrete just so. Our goal was to reduce the unappealing slab to rough-hewn, fist-sized chunks. The shattered concrete was to be repurposed as ballast to fill a gap in the pathway, thus creating a solid base for our vision of improved stair-steps.
I watched, mostly, until Joe invited me to take a few whacks at the slab. I took seven mighty swings, but each proved inconsequential. The concrete was immune to my ill-placed blows which did nothing to reduce the obstacle or advance the project. I surrendered the sledge and Joe finished the job.
Thinking it over later that day, I realized I’d encountered a lesson in editing.
There are times when my writing hardens; times when I interrupt the natural flow of a story and make the mistake of paving over a perfectly serviceable pathway with a jarring layer of unexpected and unwelcome concrete. This happens when I become obsessed with creating prose which smooths out every crack and crevice. Often, such unwise manipulation leads to dull and lifeless writing which forms an unwelcome slab of cement to confound and frustrate a reader’s journey.
An essential function of editing is the art of recognizing one’s cement and knowing how to repurpose an encrusted façade of comfortable ideas. The trick isn’t to abandon the ideas. Better to reduce the illusionary perfection to more primitive elements, then rework those unfettered pieces to form a base for something better.
When an author is embroiled in concrete and unequal to the task of extraction, it’s time to hand the sledge hammer to an impartial Beta reader or, with luck, pass it off to an editor named Joe.