A Rave About Writing
I love to edit, although I admit I find it difficult to separate editing and revising. In my opinion, a good 80% of writing is editing, and that’s before a piece ever gets to an “official” editor.
If you don’t believe me, just ask my daughter. She’s come to realize that there’s no point in asking me to proofread one of her papers. I can’t. It’s either a full edit or nothing. I can’t seem to help myself.
To illustrate my point: the second half of the first sentence of this post was originally a separate sentence reading, “I can’t seem to separate editing and revising.”
It became, “I find it difficult to separate editing and revising.”
Then it was, “I find it difficult to discriminate between editing and revising.”
The next version? “I love to edit, although I admit I find it difficult to discriminate between editing and revising.”
And finally, because I’m not going to look at it again, it is now “I love to edit, although I admit I find it difficult to separate editing and revising.”
I’m still not happy with it though.
You see what I mean?
The idea of writing being mostly editing goes hand in hand with my second point: Good writing means finding precisely the right word to say exactly what you mean. As Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
I discovered these two precepts many years ago when I interned at my college’s Public Information Office. Also during that time I began to divide writing into two categories: English class writing and newspaper writing.
English class writing is the kind of stuff you read in — no surprise — English class. Full of literary devices and symbolism, it drones on and on about the color of the wallpaper and what people are thinking.
On the other hand, by their very brevity, newspapers require that writing be short. Concise. Succinct. Exact.
You can guess which style I prefer.
I’m not saying that “English class writing” can’t be done well. There are excellent literary novels that prove this isn’t the case. But, I am saying the authors of good literary novels — which, since this is my blog, I’m defining as ones that hold my attention — use the right words in the right place to say exactly what they mean, as do the best journalists.
Whichever style of writing you prefer, editing is an important step in getting to that point.
The problem is, editing can become so all-encompassing that you never even reach a final draft.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
If you’re a writer though, I bet you know what I mean. We’re like engineers or inventors. We love to tinker, but we play with words instead of electricity and metal parts. We insert a different one here, take out another there, then try putting them all in a different order, convinced that we can find a better way to say what we want to say because we usually can.
And it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking each paragraph must be perfect before moving on to the next. While it’s true there are authors who proceed that way, I’ve found it doesn’t work for me. I would never ever finish.
I know this because when I wrote my first manuscript, it took nine months to write the first half. I kept writing and editing, and editing again, convinced it had to just right before pressing on. Finally, I realized that if I didn’t learn to just say, “Good enough,” I would be writing that same book when I was eighty.
We discussed this at an author panel I moderated recently, and one of the writers, Craig McDonald, said something like, “You have to tear the rearview mirror off, and don’t look back.”
I love that analogy because it reminds me that because writing is about balance. We have to find the right words, yes, but we also have to — and this is very important — finish the book! There’s not much point to having the perfect sentence or exactly the right paragraph if we never complete the work so people can read it. The fact is, most writers will tell you they could find something to change in their books even after they’ve been published, well-reviewed, and loved by their readers.
So, after we’ve written and edited and edited some more, we need to learn to look at our work and say, “It’s done.”