It’s a harsh lesson, but it’s as true as the moon is gray.
The best writers are the best editors, able to inflict massive punishment and criticism on their drafts — emphasis: multiple drafts — without batting an eye or shedding a tear.
The pros can cut words as easily as dicing a tomato. They can toss entire paragraphs and pages in the garbage can and not feel an iota of disheartenment. The pros know they begin with a marble block and chip at it until a fine shape is formed. That may take days, weeks, months, or years. The pros know they are carpenters: you have to hammer and sand the boards and you’ll make mistakes and need to hammer and sand the boards again and again and again until the countertop is perfect, level, and beautiful.
Then, there’s the amateurs, who hold their head in their hands and foolishly berate themselves for even trying. They may even shed a tear, or worse, give up and refuse to go at the page again because of the self-inflicted shredding of their own self-esteem.
The even more silly (and very foolish) ones don’t even cry. Rather, they hand over their sloppy, vanity draft with pride for others to read, smiling from ear-to-ear, believing, deluding themselves, that they forged a piece of gold that will blind the world with its wisdom, when, in fact, they handed over a piece of tarnished metal that will stain our eyeballs and blind them too, not from joy, but from folly. Folly hurts the eyes, trust me.
We can’t be silly or foolish and all of us have to learn these harsh lessons before we can move from amateur to pro. To move in that direction, we have to be mindful of and always remember two key principles of writing.
One: Writing is an act of imperfection from first to final draft (even the published final draft, which isn’t always error free and sometimes falls far short of the writer’s ideal vision).
Two: Writing is editing, editing is writing, A=B, B=A, the subject contained in the predicate, an analytic proposition. Both absolutely true propositions that contain no ambiguity.
The first principle: Writing is an act of imperfection because the potential for colossal error exists with every word typed or writ. To describe reality or a situation or a set of information perfectly is almost, if not utterly, impossible. It is incredibly challenging to reduce reality into a string of sentences — not to mention sentences that are written clearly, that manage to stir the heart and the mind, and that manage to captivate a reader’s interest. Thus, the range of mistakes is about as vast as the distance from Earth to Alpha Centauri, 4.37 light-years (a little hyperbolic, but you catch my drift). And the still-yet-to-be-perfected methods of your writing, your approach, your style (writing is a craft, remember), takes time, diligence, never-ending practice, and patience.
We will always make tiny mistakes, the ones the grammarians (those grammarians who are a bit too stodgy) will pick on us for: spelling, grammar, and syntax, for example. Then, there are the high-order mistakes that in my opinion truly reveal the pros from the amateurs, logic, persuasiveness, descriptive creativity, captivation, clarity in communication of simple and complex subjects, lean lines, daring, and so on.
Unless you are divine (or perhaps a stodgy grammarian), tiny and higher-order mistakes will almost always occur whether you are writing a 450-word blog post or a 100,000-word treatise on happiness. Hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions are made when we write, i.e., how to best describe a person’s personality and appearance, how to paraphrase an academic concept into plain English, which adjective or verb may be the most descriptive, the strongest, and the most riveting to describe a situation, the sheer number of choices we make regarding words, sentence structure, approach, angle, point of view, density of the language, and so forth.
We will swing and miss, hundreds, if not thousands of times. The greats strike out, Babe Ruth did (a lot, 1,330 times to be exact), and so too will you. It’s a craft, remember (but that doesn’t give us an excuse to be sloppy because of laziness or poor effort; the stodgy grammarians have a point there).
The second principle: Writing is editing, and editing is writing. A near-perfect piece of writing was born from humble circumstances — a blank page. We filled it, but surely, if we look closely — and toss aside our ego, our vanity, our tendency to think we forged shiny gold — we will notice errors. So we must rewrite, or rather write over what we just wrote, aka editing, aka writing. Writing=editing. Editing=writing.
During that stage of the game, we will notice where a concept can be described more clearly using more powerful and descriptive words. We will see sentences that should be cut down or even tossed onto the cutting room floor because they are too long, too pretentious, too boring. We will see dialogue that sounds more like a machine speaking rather than a human being. Rewrite. Write again. Our labor, a hundred, a thousand words, should be littered (figuratively) around us on the floor like wood dust falling from a saw.
If we read our work closely and objectively and toss our ego-wrapped writer mask aside (some writers have atrocious egos, I once did), we will determine that several sentences, perhaps a thousand sentences, are in need of revision, especially if we read our work aloud again and again and again. And yes we’ll also find the tiny mistakes that make the grammarians cringe (and rightly so from time to time; one of them, one of the better ones, happens to be a very smart, good friend of mine who I hope isn’t offended by this).
Through that act of editing we are indeed writing again, a more perfect draft, a draft much closer to the ideal that we envisioned, our statue of David, but only after we sized up the block and pecked at the stone exactly where we needed to peck at it after sizing it up from across the room, after taking a break from composing, eyeing up our creation, the totality of it. Even the tiniest crack must be mended.
This process should not induce sadness: I am on the fifth and final draft of my novel, as I see it until an editor says it’s time for another go at it.
This process, while arduous, should bring us joy and happiness for we are practicing the craft and getting better every time we approach the page. And you are moving closer to becoming a pro because you had the persistence, determination, and the egoless wherewithal to approach your work and improve that imperfect bastard again and again and again. You practiced. You wrote, you edited, you struck out, you got back in the batter’s box, you hit a homerun or even a single. It all counts.
Constant, tireless editing separates the amateurs from the pros. And in that act of editing, the art and craft of editing, we become better writers because we have direct, objective observation of the folly of our ways. This is the art and craft of writing. It’s just that somewhere in the mire of technique, we confused writing and editing as separate processes. To me, they are one, they are equal, they are unities of the whole.
As pros, we gain insight, we learn, we improve, and we transform the act of writing, and thus editing, into a lifelong craft, moving closer to unattainable perfection, but at least finally able to feel its breath.
We see the chips of stone and wood cuttings and dust on the floor, letting us know, the shards of our work around us, that we have indeed created the best masterpiece that we possibly could, the final draft of the page in our hands.
Addendum: I hope I made a mistake, several of them, even though I wrote/edited this four times.
Stephen J. McConnell is the co-founder of Guiding Type, a content development and internet marketing company based in Denver, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter @sj_mcconnell.com, or subscribe to his “Thoughts on Writing” blog at sjmcconnell.com.
Stephen also recently finished a novel about a sudden collapse in Earth’s environment and finished a screenplay about a United States soldier’s travails in Afghanistan. He is currently seeking representation for both works. In addition, Stephen recently published an eBook on creative writing, In Search of You. Creative Writing: Journey, Style, Method. He has a B.S. in English from Radford University and an M.S. in Writing from New York University.