October 15th, 2010 / 3:33 pm

Editing is the only honest way to talk about writing.


  1. Roxane

      I don’t…. understand. Elaborate?

  2. Roxane

      I don’t…. understand. Elaborate?

  3. goner

      Nope. Drunk is the only honest way to talk about writing.

  4. deadgod

      Editing, when done with integrity, is one of the honest ways metaphorically to talk about writing.

      [delete! – or follow with badinage]

  5. reynard seifert

      i think there’s enough information there already

  6. Marcolop

      Editing your own work or someone else’s?

  7. Roxane

      If there was enough information, I wouldn’t have like, asked the question. That’s fine.

  8. Marcolop

      I guess if your own, there’s no one to talk about the writing with.

      Or, you’re nuts. Okay, so write.

  9. reynard seifert

      if you were editing your own work you would be talking to yourself about your writing, if you were editing someone else’s work you would be talking to them about their writing, if they change your edits then you’re speaking with them about the work you’re doing

  10. lily hoang

      I talk to myself all the time. I also edit all the time. In one instance, people think I am crazy. In the other, people think I am productive.

  11. Boosh

      Rey-Rey is cranky today.

  12. reynard seifert

      not really i’ve been thinking on this for a while and i think it is true or at least pretty close to being true

  13. reynard seifert

      well that makes sense but yeah i almost just wanted to just not allow comments so i could say this without having to answer to it, maybe i should have just tweeted it, that probably would have been better

  14. BAC

      Are you talking about writing as a verb or writing as a gerund or writing as a noun.

      I think you’re wrong no matter how you answer but you’re less wrong if talking about writing as a verb. Maybe.

  15. Mykle

      Ergo: blogging on HTMLGIANT is a dishonest way to talk about writing. Got it.

  16. or here

      A clever thing to say, but I am not sure it actually means anything. If it is “true” I guess that would make this whole blog a waste of time?

  17. or here

      Missed your post when I wrote mine…

  18. reynard seifert

      i didn’t say dishonesty was a bad thing, if i thought dishonesty was a bad thing i don’t think i would like literature very much

  19. letters journal

      Lying is a waste of time?

  20. deadgod

      [anonymous internet gang alert]

      Gerunds are nouns.

  21. or here

      Saying things at seemingly random to grab attention is not a good use of time. I like HTMLGiant and enjoy dropping in and seeing what is being said. But some posts strike me as pretentious.

  22. deadgod

      i think that what reynard means is that when one reads something ‘honestly’, one imaginarily or actually but metaphorically or actually red-pencils the text. – that an honest reaction to a text is a corrective reaction.

      even when one approves absolutely, with unconditional love – ‘i love as i lay dying and would not have a word or punctuation mark or lateral or vertical space between typeset signs changed’ – , one is notionally red-penciling ‘perfect’, for greatest ease and maybe most helpful effect, at the conclusion of the piece.

      a strong, interesting way to think about reading and about cognition.

      i am only thinking of ignoble reasons for reynard’s not coming down and rassling his thought into a conversational shape he’s happy with. i think that if he did this mingling with internet amigas and amigos, he would be as glad to have and then to have had the conversation slash argument as i am glad right now, which is not orgasmically or orgasm-generatingly glad, but much gladder than to be poked in the eye and possibly gladder than to be biting through my greatest enemy’s eyeball.

  23. reynard seifert

      brendan, i wrote this post three days ago and thought about it a lot and decided that i did believe it to be a true statement from my perspective, from how i feel about what people say when they talk about writing, so i published it.

      since you think i’m being pretentious i will explain why i think you’re wrong. in my view, the things said in workshops, reviews, blurbs, reading event questions, interviews, blog posts, comments like ‘nice work!’ or anonymous comments like ‘this sucks’ – all of that is, i think, generally very dishonest. even when people are trying very hard to be honest. especially in essays, their message is tainted way too much by the encoding and decoding and framing and so on to ever approach what i would consider to be honesty. most of it means nothing anyway, even if it were to be completely understood. but with editing there is no question that we are ‘talking’ as honestly as possible. we are stating our opinions and they cannot be refuted. i am saying, ‘i don’t like this word, this sentence is unnecessary, this whole paragraph belongs over here, this adverb is gross please don’t do that.’ that to me is honesty, that to me is something that will be understood. even editing as in editing a journal i think is honest because you are making a choice, you are saying, i think this is good. there is nothing dishonest about that.

      the whole idea of writing something as a simple, single statement, is that to me it is less pretentious than an essay explaining the same thing, because the essay, as a way of writing, assumes an authoritative position in which you supposedly back up all your statements with evidence and you’re assumed to be ‘correct’ and there’s not really a lot of room to interpret your arguments because if you’ve done a good job writing the essay, they’re already there. whereas a simple, single statement must rely on its own weight to try to say something – rather than presupposing ideas it rather stands alone surrounded by a bunch that are already there. the statement has to fend for itself unless it is rescued by a bunch of words that are actually a lot more pretentious than the statement itself. which is what i’ve done just now.

  24. letters journal

      Maybe Reynard’s intention is irrelevant here.

      What does it mean ‘to edit’? If I mark up a book I am reading, make notes on it, cross things out, rewords sentences, and so on, am I editing? Even if the book has already been published and the writer will never see my edits? Why is that sort of reading/rewriting more honest than reading a book and not suggesting any changes?

      It’s unclear to me the meaning of honest in the original statement.

      Feeling right now is that editing writing and talking about writing are two different tasks, so it is incorrect to say that editing is an honest way of talking (modifying a recipe or mixing the items on your plate are not more honest ways of talking about food).

  25. reynard seifert

      i think my intention is in fact irrelevant, that is what i want more than anything

  26. or here

      Reynard: Fair enough. But then I have a question. Is our exchange right now honest or not? Because we are talking about something you wrote.

  27. or here

      I have had plenty of editors mark up things in a clearly biased way. Anyone who has written articles for a good sized magazine has surely also had the same experience. There is certainly as much opinion in editing as a couple of high school kids talking about a book.

  28. reynard seifert

      no i don’t think it is, there are a lot of things at stake, things like pride and the concept ‘right vs. wrong,’ there are a lot of things in terms of worldview that we probably don’t agree on, things you know that i don’t, favorite flavor ice cream? mine is vanilla, i’m boring, we probably wear different kinds of underwear and i’m kind of hungry right now, are you?

  29. reynard seifert

      being biased is pretty much a prerequisite of honesty, there is much more opinion and it is the kind of opinion i think is honest in editing than a couple of kids talking about a book

  30. or here

      Well, my posts have been honest. If you don’t think you are being honest then I don’t really know what to say. No, I am not hungry.

  31. or here

      So, if your editor says “I hate gays” then there is more truth in that than a 17 year old saying “I think Cather in the Rye is sort of boring”?

  32. deadgod

      I thought, though now I see from his posts subsequent to the one you’ve responded to that he might disagree with this interpretation!, that reynard meant that all genuine (“honest”) ‘reading’ already entails some kind of (initially inward) editing.

      Even if one doesn’t actually have a red pencil in paw, and simply goes over the paragraphs and sentences before putting the text down and really leaving it, while one is reacting to the text in the course of reading it, “honest” reactions are of the category to edit. Not that one need judge with dogmatic severity, but, simply, that ‘… nice … eh … maybe not … “x” is a better synonym here …’ is editing. Even simply grasping the meaning of the sentences entails a very gentle editing, a taking-responsibility for their meaning something to the grasper.

      In trying to understand what reynard is, or might ‘against’ himself be, saying, I’d rather focus on the meaning of the statement and not at all worry about reynard’s “intention”, which worrying involves stomping/splashing/sinking into a slough of desperate psychillogicality.

  33. letters journal

      The problem is that the original statement is “Editing is the only honest way to talk about writing” not “Editing is the only honest way to read” or “Editing is the only honest way to react to writing”. Talking about writing implies talking about writing with someone else. The broad definition of editing we have constructed does not imply an other to whom one talks (this probably means that our definition of editing is flawed).

      If ‘grasping’ is used to mean ‘editing’, why bother with language at all.

  34. deadgod

      Foregrounding the “to talk” is an excellent point, letters journal – I’d neglected to account for the conversationality explicit in reynard’s statement.

      To bail myself out – and not sophistically! – : Actually having a conversation is a compellingly apt model for thinking ‘alone’ – a conversation between one and oneself. Plato is right about this cognitive sensitivity: it’s impossible to mull without going back-and-forth, or among any integer larger than one of inward perspectives.

      But: you’re right. reynard has been focused from the get-go not on ‘reading’, but rather on ‘talking about reading’. But even then, isn’t ‘editing’ the same powerful analogy (or model for thinking) about ‘talking about writing’ as it is for ‘reading’??

      What I’d suggested was that ‘editing’ is an efficacious metaphor for ‘grasping’ – itself a metaphor for ‘cognition; understanding’. Do you really want the dismissiveness of your final remark to stand for itself?

  35. BAC

      Gerunds are nouns that refer to actions. They’re not just nouns. There’s a difference.

      writing–the noun, and not the gerund–would be physical bits of paper (in a book, or in a pamphlet) with writing on them. like the writing of shakespeare.

      there is a giant difference.

  36. R. Ridge

      “Editing is the only honest way to talk about writing.”

      Edited: Editing is writing.

  37. CMittens

      Hey, I think the word “writing” is always a gerund (when it’s a noun) – a gerund is a verb used as a noun. In your example: “like the writing of shakespeare” – “writing” is still a gerund, right? How could it not be? I’m also pretty sure (some better grammar nerd may correct me) that in the sentence “Editing is the only honest way to talk about writing” writing is almost definitely a gerund, because the object of a preposition is always a noun (in this case, the gerund writing.)

  38. Amy McDaniel

      Maybe it’s still technically a gerund, but writing as the physical act, like, “Let’s talk about writing while driving drunk” is totally different than writing as a physical thing, like “Let’s talk about writing by drunk drivers.” I’m inclined to say the latter probably isn’t even technically a gerund but just a plain old noun acting like a noun.

  39. C. Mittens

      Hi, Amy – I agree that the word has different meanings, but it’s not because one is a gerund and one is a noun (gerund, though, are nouns) – they’re both gerunds, which are nouns.

  40. Amy McDaniel

      A gerund is a verbal that functions as a noun. in “the writing of Shakespeare,” writing is not a verbal, it is just a noun that could be replaced with another noun, like “books.” You couldn’t substitute a regular, non-verbal noun in the sentence, “I like writing while drunk driving.” With a gerund, it’s as if the verbal, like “writing” is a stand-in for the phrase, “the act of writing.” Think of painting. Surely you wouldn’t argue that painting is always a gerund, even in phrases like, “Look at all the paintings on the wall.” Same thing. But you could use painting as a gerund, as in, “Painting is more relaxing outdoors.”

  41. BAC

      Exactly, Amy. I owe you breakfast.

  42. Traynor

      Yeah, it’s easier to get away with meaningless stuff on Twitter.

  43. Jonny Ross

      so just a variation on “writing is rewriting,” right?

  44. Michael J Seidlinger

      (damn, right). Preach it!

  45. deadgod

      All gerunds are nouns, verbal nouns, nouns ‘made from’ verbs. They are, simply, “just” nouns. (Just as all (present/active and past/passive/perfect) participles are adjectives – verbal adjectives, yes, but “just” adjectives in the (larger) set of adjectives.)

      “Writing” is always a gerund, a verbal noun. “Writing” can refer to the act directly: ‘Writing is an important thing to learn.’ – where, in this sentence, “writing” = “thing”. “Writing” can also refer to products of the act: ‘Shakespeare’s writing is widely known.’ and ‘Updike’s writings are available in fifteen volumes.’ (The pluralization of the latter indicates that “writing” is countable when it admits of variety, of kinds of writing: novels, poetry, drama, letters, criticism, occasional essays, memoirs (say).)

      The fact that a gerund can refer both to the commission and, figuratively, the result of an ‘action or state of being’ might make, semantically, a “giant difference” – as great a difference as the figure of speech can work to cause.

      For example: ‘the writing of Shakespeare’. This phrase can refer to Shakespeare’s act of sitting down, quill in hand, and scratching words onto paper. It can also refer to: the graphoanalytically susceptible penmanship of Shakespeare; the styles and methods Shakespeare uniquely used; books whose originals were written by Shakespeare; Shakespeare’s literary output considered as distinct from his stagecraft; and so on.

      But, BAC and Amy, in each case, “writing” is a gerund, a verbal noun, used either to indicate an action or state of being as though it were an object, or to indicate figuratively an object or process or pattern connected to an action or state of being.

      “painting the wall” vs. “a painting on the wall” – ‘the act of painting the wall’ vs. ‘a painted thing, left behind by the act of painting, on the wall’. “Painting” is surely, grammatically, a gerund, whether it refers to the act or to its residue.

      This is the great virtue of figural language, no? – that grammar is a field of play as much as it’s a regulatory structure.

  46. anon

      The statement’s so clever you almost want it to be true but clever is all it is really. I dislike statements with the word ‘only’ used in this manner. They reek of finality, sureness and perhaps even tyranny in a world where none of those qualities can be so casually accepted anymore. Maybe if you could justify it a little..

  47. reynard seifert

      your comment means nothing to me

  48. C. Mittens

      In response to: You couldn’t substitute a regular, non-verbal noun in the sentence, “I like writing while drunk driving.”

      You could – ‘writing’ in that sentence is a noun (the object of the verb ‘like’. You could easily replace it with “I like cake while drunk driving.”

      Deadgod put’s it better than I could below, but even in “the paintings,” “the painting” is still a verbal noun – it’s derived from the participle form of the verb “to paint.”

  49. Amy McDaniel

      The simplest way to explain this to you is probably this: a gerund (a verbal functioning as a noun) still retains some of its verbal-ness. As in, it can be modified by an adverb, as in, Writing quickly is fun. You can’t modify “paintings” in the sentence “Many paintings hang in the Louvre” with an adverb. Any adverb would modify “hang.” You can’t just say gerunds can also be the residue of an action. It just isn’t true. Some gerunds have, historically, become nouns unto themselves–but in those usages, they are no longer gerunds. I found some other examples online: “I would like a second helping” and “The lightning struck the building.”

      Sure, grammar is a field of play, but that doesn’t mean you can just make things up to suit your argument. Gerunds aren’t just nouns. They are special verbs that act like nouns because they can be subjects and objects–but ones that can be modified, like verbs.

  50. letters journal

      I will expand my dismissiveness:

      Editing is something I communicate to others (even if they don’t see it, they could see it): I mark the page, I add a brush stroke, I cross out a word, I say “say this, instead of that”, etcetera. Grasping is not communicated to others. Therefore, editing is not an analogy or synonym for grasping. There is a fundamental difference. If I knew how to type logic symbols I could write this out as a logic problem.

      Talking about writing is different from editing as well. To talk about writing is to express ‘grasping’ but not to impose or suggest changes.

      I think it’s okay for words to mean certain things and not to mean other things, for the meanings to be distinct.

  51. letters journal

      No, not at all. The initial sentence is muddled (and incorrect), but it means something very different than “writing is rewriting”.

  52. deadgod

      A simpler and more accurate way to explain gerunds to you than by “verbal-ness” might be to point to their double aspect: they can take direct objects and be modified by adverbs, as though they were verbs, and they can be subjects and direct and indirect objects of verbs and objects of prepositions, as though they were nouns. (In the (former) case of a gerund forming a nominal phrase, the phrase, built from a gerund and its modifier(s) and/or object(s), then acts, as a noun would, as a subject, direct object, indirect object, or object of a preposition.)

      Sometimes, verbal nouns (in English) migrate into being used exclusively as concrete objects. Other examples are “trimmings” and “fencing”. There’s no compelling reason why these evolutions can’t be thought of with the metaphor ‘residue’. In these cases, the words could be seen to have become “no longer gerunds”, just as gerunds are “no longer” verbs. That seems to me fair, as does BAC’s original point, but, to me, it’s more rigorous to call ‘painting’ in “the painting on the wall” a “kind of gerund” than “no longer a gerund”, because the word has not left the gerund form completely behind, in spite of a significant evolution in its usage, as you rightly say.

      Sure, Amy, there’s no blanket permission just to make things up to suit arguments, but, in linguistics, there are arguments about how best to understand and talk about how some particular language works, about what happens or is done ‘in’ it.

      For example, one could call all gerunds “non-finite verbs; verbals”, because they are all formed from verbs, and that sometimes they ‘act like’ nouns. One could, with (I think) at least equal reasonableness, and without just making things up, say that all gerunds are “verbal nouns”, sometimes treated as verbs and not nouns, but never, in forming phrases with adverbs and/or objects, with any phrasal function in the sentence except that of a noun.

      For the latter reason, I called, I think: rationally, all gerunds “nouns”. I now think, yielding to the double aspect of gerunds (that is, the fact that sometimes they are used as though they were verbs), that it would be more accurate to call all gerunds nominal: sometimes nouns directly, sometimes verb-derived centers of noun phrases.

      I don’t think it’s a frustrated dogmatism to say that ‘verbal noun’ is a more persuasive understanding of “gerund” than ‘special verb that acts like a noun’. It’s not a frustrated dogmatism to say that gerunds, even when they are modified by adverbs or take objects, are not verbs, though the argument that they are ‘non-finite verbs’ – like using an infinitive (a bare infinitive with the particle “to”) as a noun – has its rationality, too.

  53. deadgod

      But to say that ‘grasping entails a kind of editing’, as I did, is not to say that they’re identical! Similarity: to pick something essential or functional or catalytic out of one thing and see it as being, ‘likewise’, essential or functional or catalytic in another. Example: a stick still organically part of a tree and the bank at the corner are not included in each others sets, but we pick out something similar between them and predicate “branch” of both of them. A vital reason to bother language at all, right?

      I think that ‘to grasp’ a piece of writing (provisionally!, not absolutely) is to be sensible of its meaning(s), technical structures, and so on, and, to me, this means one is already sensible of strengths and weaknesses, one is already ‘in judgement’ – in a phrase: a more-or-less intrusive kind of editing.

      Why do you see ‘editing’ as, necessarily, something “communicated” to others? Even when one does “communicate” those decisions, as decisions they were first seized on in one’s mind – if those edits were never expressed, would ‘editing’ not have happened?

      And when one “talks about writing”, one takes positions, expresses perspective. Even without any interest in or possibility of suggesting or imposing changes, the process that we call ‘editing’ is what one’s already doing.

      Again, I’d thought reynard was saying that ‘editing’ is essential to writing and to reading, and I’d add: metaphorically, to understanding. I think it’s important that effective metaphor be a vehicle of clarity – the arguability of that effectiveness obtaining, of course.

  54. MM

      The prevalence of the tics of superlative —
      blankets like “the best”, your “only”, “we all” or “today” as prefaces —
      are lamentable, like saying “um” or “like”
      (didn’t I just self-efface? oops),
      and sometimes I wish we had a “(sic)”
      to prove that these aren’t simply slips.