Learn the Craft, But Don’t Overlook the Art

Grammar of the Edit, Third Edition by Christopher J. Bowen and Roy Thompson Focal Press Softcover, 288 pps., $24.95 ISBN10: 0240526007

by David Tarleton

For the novice editor, learning all
 the basic principles of the craft 
side of cutting and the conventions of 
editing terminology can be a challenge.
 Filmmakers employ a shared visual
 grammar, and many editors follow
 common editing rules and working 
practices. That’s where Grammar of
the Edit, Third Edition, by Christopher 
J. Bowen and Roy Thompson, comes
 in. The book is an update of the 2009 
second edition, which was Bowen’s 
rewrite of the 1993 editing text by the 
late Thompson. This book for beginning 
editors is an overview and introduction to
basic concepts and rules of editing, and 
presents a number of what the authors consider to be best working practices.

The book contains a very useful overview of shots, types of transitions, and a craft-and technical-based exploration of ways 
to solve editing problems, including using cut aways, matching action and knowing when to use a close-up. For a novice editor, these concepts are foundational. The book is helpful for situations where an editor has a cut that doesn’t quite work, and is trying to figure out how to solve it technically. The book isn’t about software use or the hands-on side of the work at all. It also isn’t a book on storytelling, aesthetics or art. It’s about the building blocks of 
film grammar. It also offers technical considerations on how to determine whether a shot or cut works, like focus and matching eye lines.

There are a number of helpful additions to this new edition. Focal Press has set up a website with companion videos, exercises, projects and quizzes. You can find it at www.focalpress.com/ cw/bowen.This third edition also has expansions and updates throughout, along with new photos and drawings to illustrate the ideas in the book, and quizzes at the end of each chapter.

The book’s structure is mostly a reworking of Thompson’s original text. I’ll acknowledge that I’m not a huge fan of the original edition, principally because of the tone. Thompson’s original book lists lots of rules, without adequately explaining the underlying principles behind why editors should follow those rules. In the 
first edition, he actually wrote, “Sometimes the reason why the practice exists is not clear, especially to a beginner. In such case ‘blind acceptance’ might be required.” This is simply an appeal to authority and means that the novice editor is mindlessly following instructions rather than being a creative artist who actually understands the medium. A lot of times, if a filmmaker really understands the inherent ideas behind things like, for example, eye trace and what draws the eye, then a half-dozen of the specific rules laid out in these books become obvious, because they are derived from underlying principles.

Editing is the invisible art, and as an art form, the artist must think and feel deeply about what he or she is creating.

Luckily for us, in revising the book, Bowen explains many of the rules and practices better than Thompson originally did. You can still see the DNA of the original book in there, but it has been updated and made more useful as a contemporary introductory editing text. Some of the principles seem universal and useful for all editors, like understanding shot sizes or not crossing the line. But, particularly in Chapter Six, “Working Practices,” the list of priorities for editors feels a bit arbitrary and focused mainly on technical imperfections. While the tips are useful, the book’s focus drifts away from the things that are actually important for narrative editors — how to tell a story, how to engage an audience emotionally and how to connect the audience to characters.

While the book includes rare sentences like “Edit for the emotion, and you will win over your audience” (p. 220), it never explores how to do this; rather, it spends most of the book listing specific continuity-type errors not to make.

One challenge of a book with such a narrow focus is that it can be easy for a novice reading it to get caught up in following these basic grammatical rules, and lose sight of the big picture. It really is a grammar book, much like a book for budding novelists that focuses on spelling and sentence construction. I have a concern that after reading this, beginning editors might see themselves as technicians who merely need to follow this cookbook, rather than as storytelling artists who need to understand what they are trying to communicate, and how to connect to the audience emotionally.

It’s not that Grammar of the Edit is wrong. It is just incomplete. The information contained in it is quite useful, but
 it stands in contrast to a book like Walter Murch’s In The Blink of an Eye. According to Bowen and Thompson, the most important considerations in making a good cut are information, motivation, shot composition, camera angle, continuity and sound. For Murch, the most important considerations are emotion and story. The focus of the book privileges technical considerations above storytelling and artistic ones.

Roy Thompson’s original book lists lots of rules, without adequately explaining the underlying principles behind why editors should follow those rules.

Editing is the invisible art, and as an art form, the artist must think and feel deeply about what he or she is creating, and not just mechanically follow a set of rules. My recommendation would be for a new editor to read this book in parallel with something like Murch’s in order to understand the centrality of emotion and story when evaluating a cut. The risk is that novice editors might learn only from Grammar of the Edit, put all of their attention and focus on making technically perfect edits, and make cuts that leave audiences feeling emotionally unaffected.

This edition is definitely an improvement on past editions. I do, however, have reservations about its narrowness 
of focus. Perhaps future editions could contextualize the role of grammar within the art of editing more, to help new editors clearly understand their priorities.