Zen and the Art of Editing

“When you seek it, you cannot find it.” — Zen Proverb

When editing and revising a novel in progress, I try not to seek anything. While I sometimes jot down things to consider, I don’t make lists of characters, events, dialogue snippets or internal monologues as I ponder the latest draft of my manuscript. If I do, I suddenly can’t see the forest for the trees.

Like a hiker on an unknown trail, I try to get a sense of the place–in this case, that place is the world created by the novel. Casually, I wonder: What is going on here? Who are these people? What do they want?

If I were to look too hard for specifics, it would blind me to what is missing, what could have been said, what might have been done. In many ways, I’m reading my manuscript the way I would read another author’s novel for the first time—with as few expectations as possible.

In my Sarabande’s Journey blog, I have been writing about some of the issues, symbols, motifs, and themes that are often found in a heroine’s journey story.  While my novel in progress, Sarabande, is a heroine’s journey, I do not read my manuscript looking for those issues, symbols, motifs and themes.

First, I need to internalize all of that before I begin writing; otherwise, the novel sounds like I’m simply pasting ideas into a story say, the way somebody might randomly use words in a language they don’t know in a conversation with a native speaker. Second, I don’t intend for my fiction to be a demonstration of the heroine’s journey theme or to explore everything that has been written, say, about women in a man’s world. The novel is a story before it’s anything else.

I know before I begin writing where my character is going and why. I know how the novel will end. I try to keep everything in between loose and flexible until I begin to write. Then, I go where the story carries me. When I edit and revise a manuscript, I try not to have a destination. I want to see where I am being carried by the currents and tides of the work. Editing this way is relaxing if you don’t fret about it.

Worrying about whether one ought to be doing one thing or another thing with the story doesn’t help the work. Actually, nothing helps the work more than staying out of the way of the story as much as possible. When I put on my editing hat, I’ll “fix” a lot of things and re-do a lot of things without being heavy handed.

Does this sound chaotic? Not at all. When you’re not actively looking for a result, the novel begins to edit itself.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released Bears; Where they Fought: Life in Glacier Park’s Swiftcurrent Valley, a glimpse at the dramatic history of the most beautiful place on Earth. A Natural Wonderland… Amazing Animals… Early Pioneers…Native Peoples… A Great Flood… Kinnickinnick… Adventures… The Great Northern Railway.

“Give a month at least to this precious reserve.  The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and will make you truly immortal. — John Muir, “Our National Parks,” 1901

4 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Editing

  1. chellecordero

    I think editing your own work – even if you eventually use another editor – is critical to ensuring that your own voice is evident. Good blog.

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