The (Hidden) Genius of Editing

Pattern of genius: Dickens's original manuscript
Pattern of genius: Dickens's original manuscript

Editing has a bad name.

To many of us, the word evokes fussy red pens, nitpicking, stilted progress. Editing — which we can define as locating mistakes and fixing them — seems in every way to be the precise opposite of genius. After all, geniuses are fluid, perfect. Geniuses nail it the first time — that’s what makes them geniuses, right?

Uh, no.

In fact, when you peel back genius, you usually reveal editing. Lots and lots of editing. Ridiculous amounts of editing. Here are two useful case studies: Charles Dickens and Michael Jackson.

Check out this amazing original manuscript of “A Christmas Carol,” which went online today thanks to the cooperative efforts of the NY Times and the Morgan Library and Museum. It’s a riotous quilt of writing and rewriting — and looks for all the world like an 8th-grader’s term paper.

Of course, the changes are being made at an exceedingly high level — but the thing to recognize here is the pattern of work. Dickens read and re-read it dozens of times, finding fixes both small (changing “spot of mustard” to the more vivid “blot of mustard,” for example) and large (writing, then crossing out, a long paragraph comparing Scrooge’s character to Shakespeare’s Hamlet).

(See more examples of Dickens’s editing here.  And George Orwell’s spectacularly mashed-up first draft of 1984 here. And Bruce Springsteen’s six-month-long editing of the song “Born to Run” here. All proving why many writers hide their first drafts.)

It’s weird to think of writing a sentence as a neural circuit — as a chain of wires inside Dickens’s mind — but that’s precisely what it is. And in his editing, Dickens is firing those circuits, noting the mistakes, fixing the mistakes, then firing them again and again (and again) to gradually hone it into a smooth, natural-seeming result.

Michael Jackson, who was famous in the music industry for his work ethic, did the same thing with his dancing. Here is his tap-dance instructor, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, on what it was like to work with Jackson.

“He was a perfectionist and in four hours we might work four bars [about one song 15 seconds]. He would not move on until he was completely comfortable with one movement. That way he took the material in and made it a part of himself. He polished it before he moved on. I saw the passion in his work, very intense.”

Think about that:  Four hours of work on one song 15 seconds’ worth of moves.

As so often with the truth, there’s a paradox here: the final performance is designed to create the illusion of naturalness and fluency — of genius — which distances observers from the deeper force that truly created it: the humbler but still powerful force of a craftsman at work.