The Power of Editing

Check out Leonard Cox's reflection on Luke Gerwe's presentation about Voice of Witness and cultivating oral history networks.

During a recent forum co-sponsored by the Oral History Master of Arts (OHMA) program at Columbia University, Luke Gerwe (Gur-we), Managing Editor, Voice of Witness, said, “Fiction writers make great editors of oral histories because they know exactly what details to include. They seem to select the best imagery that really gives the reader a portrait of how the narrator experiences life.”

Gerwe went on to share that skillful editing can yield a text that is more closely aligned to a narrator’s lived experience than can be accomplished solely with an unedited transcript.  His reasoning seemed inviting, if not poetic, as he described the artistry of editing as a mechanism to make a person’s story more accessible to a diverse group of readers.   

It’s clear the oral histories published by Voice of Witness are accessible, beautifully written, highly compelling and certainly full of heart-wrenching imagery—“it was like my skin had been rubbed away,” is just one example. It’s also clear that the editing process required to produce a quality story can be daunting.

When I consider the countless number of hours that must go into the content and structure of a story I get a bit overwhelmed. Having just finished my first three transcripts as a student of oral history, I’m wondering about the next several steps that I will need to add to my path of learning.  Hopefully, well-chosen steps will lead me to a point of refinement where I can make the best editing choices that will, in turn, lead to the most effective stories.  

At this stage, I’m kind of partial to the “ums,” the coughs, the sounds and quivers of choked-back tears, the gulps, the silences, the words that don’t make sense, the words that are specific to the narrator, and the malapropisms that I always find entertaining.  As I read more oral histories, I’m learning that my partialities might need to go. As I read more oral histories, I’m learning more about the essential elements that help give a narrator’s story life on the page. I’m learning more about the power of editing.

Allow me to share the story about my first time out as an editor of an oral history. I spent years recording the lived experiences of my maternal grandmother.  Her words were not captured on one of today’s sophisticated digital recording devices, but instead were painstakingly recorded in the handmade journals that I used to glue together from pieces of tossed paper that I would gather from the trash basket near her typewriter.  On the occasions that I would flip through the collection of her tales, I would relish each and every word.  Her thoughts seemed luscious, sage, and full of histories that were linked to other histories.  To me, her words told the perfect story.

For an undergraduate paper about Indiana history, I decided to resurface the journals and share some of my grandmother’s stories.  I remember poring over each and every word to find the right combinations that would best describe the story of a woman who grew up on an orchard in southern, Indiana.  I had limited space. I was faced with choices.  I remember, however, being totally engaged in the process of selecting just the right story.

Was it the story about how she could peel an apple in one continuous slice? Was it the story about her initiative to organize a group of women from surrounding farms to make quilts for those in need?  Or, was it the story about how I loved to touch her rough hands and ask her to tell me about each and every crack in her skin? Admittedly, I didn’t have the skill, precision or experience of Gerwe’s editors but I remember the process taking a considerable amount of time.  I remember deleting words and moving phrases around to create an image of my grandmother that would resonate with the reader.  Although I knew the audience was limited, I wanted my history class to know the woman whom I so admired. It was a painstaking process.

Gerwe described the painstaking process of editing transcripts.  “We [Voice of Witness] probably have around two hundred thousand words for an average project.  Maybe fifteen thousand words make into a final draft,” said Gerwe.  “After editing, we aim for narratives to be in the six-thousand- to seven-thousand-word range.”

Here he further describes some of the challenges of the editing process and the rigor that was applied to the Voice of Witness book, Invisible Hands – Voices From the Global Economy.

Ultimately, when called upon to edit a transcript, I plan to follow Gerwe’s lead and engage in the rigorous undertaking needed to create a voice for a person’s lived experience. I pledge to select each story with thought, compassion, a nod to imagery, and with a commitment to collaboration. I pledge to be very careful about the red ink I use. I pledge to find the right words.  

This workshop took place on Thursday, September 18, 2014 as part of the 2014-2015 Oral History workshop series.  Join us for the next one!