Guest post by Deborah Hawkins, Author of Ride Your Heart ’til it Breaks
Many years ago I had the great pleasure of teaching writing to college freshmen. Many of them dreaded Composition 101 because their high school English teachers had never explained to them that the process of writing something and the process of editing it are two entirely different functions. Many of my students would write a sentence and then immediately analyze it for errors and become too paralyzed by doubt and indecision about “mistakes” to go on writing.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was a free-spirit who simply wrote any and every thought that came into her head without analysis, without punctuation, and often without paragraphing. Unlike my paralyzed souls who would present me with two little sentences in place of a whole composition, Miss Free-Spirit would give me page after page of formless free association. None of these students understood the difference between writing and editing.
Writing is the creative side of expressing an idea. To write, you have to turn off your inner critic and focus on what you want to say. I do a lot of planning when I am writing fiction, and much of that planning consists of character biographies and story time lines that I jot down without much thought to the fine points of grammar and punctuation. These bits of writing are for my eyes only, so I am the only one who has to understand them. Similarly, as I write a chapter, I give little thought to mistakes. I am more like Miss Free-Spirit.
But after I have finished a chapter of a novel, I turn on my critical side and become my own editor. Now I look for errors in punctuation, in spelling, and paragraphing, and above all, in communication. The writing function is expressing the idea. The editorial function answers the question, how well did I communicate it.
I have never had any difficulty editing myself. I worked as a technical editor for a year or so between my teaching job and entry into law school. I have always been able to look at my own work as if someone else had written it. In fact, I am more ruthless when I edit myself because when I edit someone else I want to be careful to preserve the writer’s unique voice. A really good editor makes a piece of writing better but does not take it over and make it the editor’s own work. The best editors always respect the writer’s individual style.
When I write a novel, I like to do my first edits chapter by chapter, so that I can catch any major problems before I get too far along in the book. On the days when I sit down to write and nothing comes, I find it helpful to read the last chapter I wrote. After that, the next bit of the story seems to flow easily through my fingers.
My absolute favorite moments comes when a draft of the entire manuscript is finished. I am always relieved that I now have a complete version of my idea in writing, and I am ready to edit it. It is much easier to turn on the editor-critic function and improve a piece of writing than it is to write in the first place. In other words, the creative side of communication is more demanding than the critical function. But both are essential to excellent writing and storytelling, and I enjoy them both. Creating any piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is much easier to do when you realize writing and editing are different tasks that need to be performed at different times in the overall process of composition.