Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Editing Process: Viewing One's Work Objectively

Once upon a time, I thought of starting a blog so that I could write about writing. Then I decided to write about other things, too. Here are some recent thoughts I've been mulling over, concerning the editing process. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to this issue; I'm sure I've left out some aspects of it.

Please note that I'm not "aiming" this at any individual in particular, so if it "speaks" to you, don't take it personally-- I've had discussions on this topic with several people. Also, keep in mind that it applies not only to writers but to any other kind of artist, and even to life in general. Please also note that I don't mean to imply that every writer necessarily struggles with this issue.

One of the most important things for the personal progress of any art is for the artist to reach a point where he can detach himself emotionally and personally from his work. This does not happen during the actual first-draft writing process, of course-- at that time, it's equally imperative that a writer be deeply immersed in his work. When it's time to edit, though, it's also time to separate his imaginary world from his identity.

It is imperative that a writer learns to look at his work objectively, and realize that it is not him. It may be a part of him, his prized possession, or even the most important work of his life-- but it is not him. Of course he has given it life, and feels through it, and even to an extent lives through it, but it is not him.

This detachment will not hurt his book, or the world inside it. If he clings too tightly to it, it will be unable to grow. If he does not release his art to the possibility of growth, it will only ever be a reflection of his own ego. Think about it-- if a writer is dead set against anyone saying anything against his book, he's essentially stating that it is finished: he doesn't want anything to change. Not only does he not want it to change, but in requesting an editor, he's not really looking for help in refining his manuscript; he's looking for someone to agree with him.

The writer has to understand that if someone comments, "This part wasn't clear to me, and I really don't find Annie a very engaging character," it does not mean that he personally is confusing and boring. Just Annie, and that one part in the book. He might think that that passage was perfectly clear, and Annie might be his ideal woman-- but what can it hurt, to step back, take a deep breath, and double-check?

Now, it is natural for the writer to still feel attached to his book, during the editing process. There's nothing monstrous about becoming a little discouraged with the amount of work that needs doing, nervous that something important might be lost, or sad that the life seems at times to have gone out of the project. Don't worry. It's not dead; it's resting.

Notice that this does not mean desensitizing oneself. Ceasing to care what happens to a writing project is the wrong approach to helping it grow. Remain connected, but remember that this time the journey is not a voyage of discovery, but one in which a path is cut so that others can follow. Every writer will find something to change or fix to make the way clearer.

If a writer asks for someone's help and ends up either lashing out at them, defending every little thing, or crumpling into his shell like a wounded barnacle, he's not going to get very far-- and besides missing out on what might be valuable opinions, he'll run the risk of deeply confusing or even hurting the person who was only trying to help him. This certainly doesn't mean he has to knuckle under and submit to every piece of advice, or even agree with the critiques. The writer will always know his work best. It is often possible that, despite the very best of their intentions, some people may have valid reasons for not being able to understand his work in order to edit it, though they may enjoy reading it or really want a part of that world.

If a writer is still so absorbed in his story that he can't bear any contrary opinions, he might need to rethink his goals. Sometimes all that is needed is time away from the story, perhaps working on a different one for a while, or an unrelated activity altogether. If he is simultaneously unable to bear criticism but has a publishing schedule worked out for himself, trouble can be expected. This can be especially hard when writing has become a form of escapism, the only thing in life that seems to be going well. That's no time to edit.

I often have to reassure commenters that I won't find their critiques personally insulting. Actually, most people who are familiar with me as a writer know that I'm constantly poking fun at my own work. I take it very seriously, but not so personally that I can be shattered. I've had to learn to be patient with myself, and with my work; I know it's worth it, in the end. On the flip side, I have to remember that not everyone automatically realizes the degree of detachment that is necessary, and that some are still learning it. I've forgotten this several times, much to my shame.

The deep and necessary personal connection to a story-world is also why I'm reluctant to give detailed feedback on unfinished first drafts. They're too fragile, too mutable, for me to take into my own hands. I don't want my editing to cause someone to continuously restart their book, to discourage them from at least getting one full draft written, or to overload their creative circuits with technical details. I do make exceptions for people who have stopped writing a draft for various reasons and want to begin again.

You discovered a gem-- now, to show it at its very best, you have to summon the calmness, focus, and strength of mind to cut it.


  1. "It's not dead; it's resting."

    Or maybe it's pining for the fjords. *g*

    Dear other readers of this post: I have made fun of the author's characters many, many times. One of my chief leisure pursuits is mocking one of her villians. (To the point where I am not sure what I will do with my life when he gets edited to be more realistic...) She generally just laughs.

  2. Actually, her chief duty is to make fun of my characters, so that I am motivated to make them less derisible. ^_^