Editing History

Anyone writing a history book must gather an armada of facts. You start with the headliners of a chosen time, such as Queen Elizabeth I, and work your way down into intricate side alleys where hopefully none have gone before. You emerge from your toils with a masterpiece of assemblage—only to learn that it is too long for a publisher’s page requirements. How are you supposed to judge what should stay and what should go?

The first place to look is lengthy quoted material. By their very nature, excerpts from other sources fall in the category of support for your points. Maybe during the course of your research, you saw an entire paragraph from a historical figure that was marked by its passion and eloquence. So it’s all included. Yet if you need to make cuts, you have to decide whether that eloquence is really speaking to the point you’re trying to make. Maybe you keep only two sentences out of six.

A second field for cutting comprises repeated quotes from the same source. You may have a dozen quotes from an excellent biography of the Earl of Essex, for instance, and you’ve judiciously strewn them throughout the book, backing up a variety of points you’ve made. So you should look to see if you have other quoted material backing up that same point. If you do, excise the Essex bio quotes. A dozen times is probably going to the same well too often anyway.

Once the easy choices are made, you have to examine your text critically. How in depth are you getting on tangential subjects? You may have started off, for instance, using the creation of permanent theaters as a way of showing the rise of London’s middle class, but that devolves into a discussion of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. You’re going too far down a side alley for the book. You can probably trim a paragraph here and there concerning all sorts of ancillary tidbits.

Another area to consider is biographical material on minor personages. One of the problems with research is that some other author will have reams of information on her chosen topic. As you get deep into the weeds of your subject, that material seems important for providing context. If you had the space, that would be great. But if you need to prune, I don’t need to know how many wives and children the guy had if his reason for being in the book is a law that tried to ban theatrical entertainment as licentious.

Exercise: Footnotes are an author’s best friend when trying to reduce word count. Do you have a striking anomaly that you can’t bear to part with, but know it’s pretty far off the track? You create a footnote. These days, many of these are posted online, so you can be as ornate as you like.

“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”
—Harry S Truman

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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