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Behind the Editing Process of Narrative Travel Writing

by David Miller Aug 4, 2011
Simultaneously publishing completed stories along with excerpts from the editor and writer’s three-month revision period, Glimpse and Matador give a window into how narrative travel writing takes shape.

ONE OF THE ELEMENTS central to Matador’s ethos has always been progression. What matters isn’t so much a single story or book or project, but the ongoing continuation, the downstream momentum as I like to call it, the day-to-day process of writing, working, surfing, raising a family, whatever it is and however one is able to continue learning, practicing, and sustaining his/her work over time.

When a story appears online or in print, what’s inaccessible to the readers are the hours, days, months, and sometimes years behind the writer’s progression. The notes, cuts, rewrites, revisions. The remarks and dialogue and relationship with the editor.

With the publication earlier this week of Glimpse Correspondent Lauren Quinn’s story Bones surfacing in the dirt, thirty years later, we began something new at Matador. Moving forward, as each Correspondent’s story is published, we’ll be simultaneously publishing perspectives from both writer and editor on the revision process.

Sarah explains in her first note about Lauren’s piece:

What I’d like to offer at Glimpse is a sort of x-ray of the editorial process, showing how stories are crafted. When a correspondent’s piece is published at Matador, I’ll put up an accompanying post here at Glimpse with excerpts from different drafts of their work (always, always with their permission – if a writer is uncomfortable with this I don’t do it) and with a discussion about what sorts of hurdles we cleared as we were going through the editorial process.

On a very selfish level, this is tremendously useful for me in understanding my own writing and in being able to reflect on the months the writer and I have spent together on a piece. I’m hoping you also find it useful as you are reading and writing, and it reassures (or humbles!) you to know that nothing comes out fully formed and untouchable, that there are many hours of deliberation and remaking and back-and-forth before the final piece you read comes out all pretty and tidy and polished, betraying nothing of its unglamorous passage to publication.

Meanwhile, Lauren had this to say about the three months spent on this story:

The first draft of my Ethical Dilemma essay was about the inherent role of bias, how it was coloring my experiences in Cambodia—and a lot of Westerners’ experience in Cambodia—and how the way to effectively deal with that bias was to face it squarely and explicitly.

Fair enough, but the problem was this: the piece took place in my head. There were no scenes, no characters, no story. What there was a lot of: metaphors, abstractions, weighty language and heavy-handed musings, and I buried the story inside of all that. I was circumventing, hinting at—trying to write about something without actually writing about it. Trauma at arms’ length.

I was exemplifying, through my writing, the very phenomenon I’d come to write about: the silence people assume after a trauma. It was about as blatant a metaphor you could ask for. And I didn’t even know I was doing it.

And Sarah called me on it. Goddamnit.

She then goes on to describe how she worked through two more complete rewrites. If you’re interested at all in the editorial process behind narrative travel writing, definitely check out the Glimpse Editorial Blog. We’ll have another Glimpse Correspondents piece in the next couple weeks.

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