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.


10 thoughts on “The Art of Visual Editing

  1. I have often been given university assignments by collegues and asked to read them. Before I start I always ask from what perspective and (often) if they’ve read it aloud. I’m bever sure if it is content, style, format, or to edit. If, fo example, the response is, “I’m not sure if I’ve met the criteria,” then I know what to look for. If anything else leaps out at me, I’ll ask if they want me to tell them: I ask permission to critique. Actually, when I think of it, if a kid is happy with their work and they’ve done what was asked but I think they can do more, I do exactly the same thing.

      • You could say that art directors are visual editors. It’s their job to maintain the visual unity of the production (adds, movies, theater…). It’s the AD that decides the style, the elements and stuff. But it is more a commercial job than Artistic one. In art world it could be the gallerists or curators who can act as visual editors for artists they work with. But you are right, there are no visual editors as such in the art world.

        But there are visual editing ideas for visual arts. It’s just that they are not as clearly formulated as editing for writings is. That might be because the rules of visual editing are so close to the thinking ‘tools’ of artists, designers and whatnot so that the editing ideas are often found in books on artistic expression or composition, colour, visual rhythm, etc. You kind of have to deduce the editing attitude from them.

        Classic books on this are Leon Battista Alberti’s ‘On Painting’ (De Pictura, first published 1435), Rudolf Arnheim’s ‘Art and Visual Perception’ (he has several books on the subject) and E.H. Gombrich’s ‘Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation’ (he too has written extensively on this). Then there are countless books on layouts and graphic design, naturally, but if you are really interested in the subject, then I highly recommend reading Arnheim’s or Gombrich’s books. They offer fewer practical solutions that graphic design books, but they explain and illustrate many of the core principles behind the expression in visual arts. And they are both relatively easy reads as far as philosophical writings go. Gombrich is actually quite entertaining even.

        • Yes, art directors are the ones who take care of ads, but you are very clever in seeing that ads have specific purposes for clients, and art’s purpose is often to explain a viewpoint of life to the artist, then to the world. I read several of Gombrich’s book about (gulp) 15 or so years ago, and loved his point of view on psychology and how we see art and the world because of it. I’d forgotten about them, but you are right, they are excellent books.

  2. I’m sure this has happened to you too. I’ve occasionally been asked to “take a look at” someone’s writing, and sometimes it’s very difficult to find something constructive to say. In one case I discovered the writer had no idea that editors are involved with professional writing. In this case it quite possibly wouldn’t have helped anyway, but it was interesting to see the outcome: “not having an editor” became an excuse for lack of success, and, I suppose, a reason not to try to improve.

    I’ve also been asked to do the same for someone’s programming code. For some reason, while I’m very reluctant to criticize someone’s writing very much, I’ve been known to tell a would-be programmer “you have two choices: go back to school or find a different profession.”

    On another subject, I’ve read about writers who claim to have started out by retyping an existing book they admired. I never quite understood the point, but it does seem the same as copying a sample.

    • You have to get comfortable with your own talent completely before you tell others what’s wrong with theirs. And the situation has to be clear. Not “what do you think of my novel” but a more definite question. “Is the dialog realistic for a talking penguin?” I don’t get the re-typing thing at all. I can type a manuscript and never know what it said. Cf: Rosemary Woods and 18 minutes.

  3. This is fascinating. Writing is very often a joint effort because editors of various sorts (copy editors, developmental editors, etc) contribute and improve it. There are editors for visual artists as well?! I’ve never heard of that before.

    • Well, ummmm, I haven’t either. I do think visual artists need to edit their own work. And many of them do. You see artists doing studies before they start, and pre-sketches and under-drawings. That’s a type of visual editing. But many artists, particularly self-taught ones, don’t do that. They call themselves “intuitive” and work from that point. Sometimes that works and other times not.

      Sometimes editing shows up when we trouble ourselves over if the piece is done, and we wonder if it’s good enough, but the editing stage, that I am so familiar with in writing, often doesn’t happen in visual arts. And it needs to. Just as a writer must do several drafts, a visual artist needs to check materials used, composition, color. Many artists today start in the craft area, where they copy a sample exactly. That’s a mistake, because it doesn’t develop the editing skill. It develops perfectionism and speed, neither of which are particularly useful in art.

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