The Art of Visual Editing

She handed me her journal–pages splayed with additions, found items, inserts. “What do you think?” Such a hard question to be asked. In one way, it doesn’t matter what I think, if she is satisfied. If she likes her work, if she found meaning in the activity or the result, then my opinion has no importance.

Overstuffed sofa.

Overstuffed sofa.

In another way, I’d like to know why she’s asking the question. Is this the art journal equivalent of “Do these pants make my tuchus look fat?” Is she asking for praise in a hidden way? Is she looking for suggestions? Approval?

I turned the pages of the journal. I’d heard of the technique–do anything. Some pages were sewn chaotically, combining junk mail and lace, tulle and magazine pages. The bobbin thread had become confused with the different tension needed for the different papers, and there were big loops and knots of thread. One page had a piece of ruler glued to it, the next one an angel next to which was stamped the word: guardian angle. When I smiled at the typo, which seemed to make sense along with the ruler, I thought (to myself): What this needs is visual editing.

It’s fun to slap things together and see if it makes sense. Occasionally.

It’s also interesting to ask yourself what you are doing and are you presenting a message or searching for one.

Visual editing is much like word editing. It’s done in stages. First you look for

Overstuffed cheeks

Overstuffed cheeks

content, logic and flow. Does it make sense? Does it unfold logically?  Is it interesting?  Is the sequencing clear? Next you look for typos, meaning-gaffs (its for it’s, podium for lectern, disinterested instead of uninterested)* and then for punctuation errors. Next you make sure all headlines/subheadlines/sub-sub-heads are in the same font and style within each category, the page numbers appear in the center or on the edges, but not both, that photo captions are italic or bold but not mixed. Three passes and you’ve done some editing for clarity and understanding.

Visual editing works the same way.  Is the journal going to be shown to anyone or is it private? (Since she showed it to me, it became public.) Is there a theme to the overall journal? If so, is it obvious? If not, does it need an explanation? While turning a page and moving from front to back is the normal order of Western books, does this one create an order? If there are inclusions, attachments, found objects, how is space created for them?

Overstuffed shelves.

Overstuffed shelves.

There are guidelines for visual editing just as there are for word editing. To break the rules you have to understand them first. Yes, ee cummings and James Joyce broke the rules, but they first followed them, then knew why they wanted to break them. And some well-read people are still grumbling about that decision.

Personally, I’m not fond of splayed-out books that are sewn, spackled with gesso, layered randomly with paints and papers, and weighted down with found objects that don’t create a narrative that can be followed. But then again, I’m not the art police. If that makes meaning for you, it is your meaning. If you are satisfied, that is an important step for you.

In the end, instead of giving an opinion, I asked questions. “How did this book come together for you?” “What did you like best in making this book?” “What caused problems for you?” “How did you solve those problems?” “Will you keep this for yourself or will you give it away?” The answers told me a lot, including that my opinion was not required. So I kept it to myself. And we both parted with our perspectives intact.

*In case you were wondering about the differences:
its=possessive form of it. The book was blue; its cover was torn. It’s means “it is” or “it has.”
A podium is something you stand on to make yourself taller, such as a riser. A lectern is something you stand behind to give a speech or lecture.
Uninterested means “doesn’t care.” Disinterested means impartial.

Quinn McDonald understand visual editing, and knows that sometimes, no matter how much she loves that page, it doesn’t belong. Sigh. So she saves it for another time.