Time: The Key Ingredient

Apricot budsWriting can be very much like painting a shed. It’s easy to get really into the job, do it as thoroughly as you’ve done anything in your life, and then step back to see that you’ve missed a spot or five. When you’re painting a shed, however, it’s a simple matter to step back ten or twenty feet and squint at it. You can’t quite do the same thing with a written story.

Many writers find that they miss some big mistakes when they edit their own work. This isn’t actually due to sloppiness or laziness, but rather due to the fact that writers get to know their work very well when they’re writing it. In fact, they know it so well that they can understand what’s going on even if their writing doesn’t actually convey it clearly. It’s easy to skip over a logical leap or a small plot hole when you have a creator’s familiarity with the story.

For some writers, the solution to this problem is to share the story with someone else. I myself have a few colleagues with whom I’ll trade work when it needs to be edited in a hurry. However, we can’t always do that, and sometimes we just need our own perspective for whatever reason. In these circumstances, the best thing you can do is take a break from your story and work on something else. It could be another story, or it could be the backyard – the important thing is that you distract yourself until your mind has loosened its grip on the story’s details.

When you return from this break, prepare to be mildly confused by your own writing. There will be a sentence here or there that mystifies you. There will be a piece of vital information missing when you’d sworn you’d written it down. There will be glaring grammatical errors that you don’t know how you missed. But, take heart – now that you can see the spots you missed in your first edit, you can fix them.

Mechanical Editing vs Creative Editing: Which one suits you?

You’re sitting on the mahogany armchair on the patio outside your holiday bungalow, the ice in your Piña Colada melting at just the right pace under the scorching but friendly Mediterranean sun, the brim of your Paul Smith sun hat pulled down low while its roasted-straw-scent distracts you from the concluding chapter of the sequel to your one-hit-wonder published less than six months ago. You’re on holiday five thousand miles away, after the twenty-hour autograph-signing and press conference in New York two days ago. But you’re perturbed because your Armani shades are useless against the glare on your MacBook Air… Honestly, really?crappy radiator

You’re shivering hard despite a hot water bottle pressed against your empty stomach underneath two hoodies, a coat and three duvets, in front of the desk that squeaks every time you press what is left of the space bar on your vintage Windows XP laptop. It’s 2am, the smell of burnt toast from the kitchen downstairs and the emphatic celebration and swearing from a video game duel between the male students next door are driving you insane, but you daren’t leave your cocoon and punch on their door to demand peace and silence because the radiator is broken and it’s sub-zero in the apartment building. There’s no deadline for your book, but you’re stressed because this is the third time your book’s been turned down by rude and snobby publishers. Nothing’s working for you, but you’re too stubborn to give up. You need something, but what is it?

Both the hot-shot writer and the subsisting writer are not happy with their respective lives at the moment, despite the disparity in success, because they’re suffering within the same painful process: Editing.

Remember Hemingway’s famous maxim: “Write drunk, edit sober”? That might explain the nightmares faced by the above two versions of you. The more capricious your first draft, the more excruciating your editing hangover. But why is editing such a gruesome experience?

Let’s look at the two types of editing:

Proofreading/Mechanical Editing

Mechanical editing is essentially proofreading. To say that a piece of text requires this type of editing means that it needs to be thoroughly perused and then polished in terms of grammar and punctuation. As the name suggests, it’s a robotic process that involves painstaking attention to detail in order to completely eliminate all errors in spelling, vocabulary, grammar, punctuation and language usage. The editor begins by detecting and correcting straightforward typographical slips, then extends his jurisdiction as far as stylistic infelicities and stops right there. Alterations outside his scope belong to the next category of editing.

Creative/Substantive/Holistic Editing

Creative editing, as its multiple aliases suggest, involves more general re-writing and re-organization for the purpose of improving the logic and flow of the book. In addition to logical changes, sometimes more subjective changes are also introduced and incorporated into the manuscript. Whether it be on the macroscopic scale that includes the reworking of storyline, character, tone or diction, or on the detailed level that assures the accuracy and consistency of minute facts, the creative editing process typically gives rise to the image of an over-caffeinated, red-eyed editor poring over a manuscript.

While creative editing allows for a less constrained type of input, it runs the risk of clipping wings or even damaging authenticity and spontaneity. This is why an author must choose carefully the editor in whose hands he places his manuscript.

Both of these types of editing share a common factor: they represent the archetypal ‘unfinishable’ job. However it is possibly this single facet of writing which sorts out the great work from the sloppy work.

Polish your work but know how far to go, where to stop, and when to call in reinforcements.