Sunday, July 20, 2014

Kill Your Thoughts aka Editing

The hardest thing about writing is editing. Ok, the hardest thing is getting started. No, the hardest thing about writing is research. Actually...

You get the point. There is nothing easy about writing. There are so many facets to writing, and all of them are important in creating a satisfactory finished product. Each stage of the writing process contains a variety of difficulties; editing is just the final stage, and the most important.

Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a writer. What I never wanted to be was an editor, and nobody told me that all writers are editors.

All aspects of writing are frustrating, but editing is by far the most humbling. One misconception of writers is that they are "natural" and "born to be a writer." I disagree wholeheartedly; they may enjoy it more than those who don't write, but it never comes easy. It's hard work coming up with ideas and it's even harder getting those ideas down in a way that makes sense to others and expresses your true sentiments. So after all that work, the last thing you want to do is change the majority of it. You just busted your ass writing something, you don't want to reread it, you don't want to work on it anymore, and you definitely don't want to admit that it sucks.

Yet that is exactly what you need to do. When you're a professional writer, you have an editor and a lot of experience dealing with criticism and harsh revisions. As a student, you have the benefit of a teacher helping you edit, and even if the teachers' critiques are harsher than you expect, in a classroom there is an understanding that you will be judged on your work. Even in those situations, however, self-editing is still vital, and it can be an exercise in self-loathing and masochism. Sometimes you craft what you think is a perfect sentence, only to realize it doesn't fit with the rest of your paragraph, and you need the courage to get rid of that beautifully constructed combination of words. If you're honest, you will tear your own work to shreds, giving yourself even more work. It's a Sysiphean task, which is why I love it.

My first experience with the humbling editing process was my 8th grade graduation. I was tasked with making a speech by the principal of my elementary/middle school, Dr. Zoe Athanson (RIP). I spent several days and nights putting together a groundbreaking, mindblowing speech that would have my classmates and their families alternating between fits of crippling laughter and uncontrollable crying. I brought it to her office a few days before graduation with a cheesy grin, full of pride and self worth. She had me sit down in her office while she read it. She took out a pen and quietly, methodically, started scribbling, draining my self esteem with each swipe of her pen. After about 10 minutes, she gave it back to me, completely changed. The general ideas were the same, but the wording and structure were completely different. I didn't even recognize my own writing. Without telling me outright, her edits basically told me, "You don't want to embarrass yourself out there, so here's something more acceptable."

It stung a little bit. I figured she considered me a good writer since she asked me to write something, yet she clearly thought I was garbage.

After I got over my hurt feelings, the experience had a strange effect on me. I always considered myself a good writer (the qualifications included: writing on my own time) but this gave me a glimpse at reality. Just because you do a thing and you like doing that thing doesn't mean you do that thing well. I was hurt by her revisions, but the experience made me want to do better. I didn't want to be passing off her work as my own. I felt bad saying someone else's words; okay, I felt bad until the speech, then I owned it. Staring at all the people staring at me, I was just happy as hell not to be reading the crap I wrote.

In actuality, she had simply edited my paper, helping the golden nuggets that were my ideas shine through more clearly. I have since learned to do that more on my own, and I realized that my experience was something that all writers must face. At some point we have to confront the fact that we are not that good, and we need to improve. That's as hard a reality to accept in writing as it is in life.

I also learned how much editors actually do for writers. Some classic writers are rumored to have been extremely sloppy; are we really idolizing their work or the work of their editors? A lot of writers are upfront about how much their editors do for them; on the other hand, other writers are almost obsessive compulsive about editing their own work, never letting more than a few people see it until it is "perfect" in their minds.

Regardless, all writers realize the importance of editing,whether they do it themselves or with outside assistance. It is important to remember that revising is a separate mental process from creating, which is why it helps to have someone else edit your work at some point in the process. It's also why many editors are not the best writers and vice versa. Editing and creating use two completely different parts of the brain. It is impossible (well, certainly not productive, anyway) to edit while writing. Get everything out on paper, no matter how it sounds, then go back and work on it. That's the greatest part about a first draft: it can be complete trash and eventually turn into a classic.

The first page of a heavily-edited manuscript of George Orwell's 1984 
First draft of George Orwell's 1984.

When you set out to write, remember James Thurber's words: "Don't get it right, get it written." You can get it right eventually, but you have to get it down, get it out there. We're all great writers in our heads, but nobody can read your mind. As Margaret Atwood said, "If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word." The greatest thing about writing is that you don't have to get it perfect the first time, or even second time, because there is the implicit agreement that you make when you start writing that you will respect the work, and yourself, enough to revise until it is right.

Or until you are absolutely sick of it and ready to set fire to your computer. That's when you know you are becoming a writer.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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