Write like a writer; edit like an editor

Recently I spent an exhilarating hour and a half talking to an author about editing—not his manuscript specifically, but the concept of editing in general. (This is how word nerds party.)

The conversation was with author Brian Murphy on his marvelous How Writers Write podcast (here’s the first of our two episodes if you’d like to listen), and we dug really deeply into the nuts and bolts of how an edit actually works, practically. But in the second half of the interview Brian led us into the craft side of an edit: the essential tools in an author’s toolkit—like characterization, maintaining momentum, building suspense, and much more—that bring an author’s vision fully to life.

As we moved into talking more about craft, Brian slowly circled in on a frustrating paradox that vexes so many authors—that so often the story that winds up on the page doesn’t quite live up to the rich, deep version in our heads.

“How can writers learn to write like an editor?” he finally asked outright.

My answer? You can’t. Or at least, to my mind, you shouldn’t.

Just as you can’t play the violin like a conductor, or act like a director, or play football like a coach, writing and editing are two different functions, different skills—most important, different mind-sets. Trying to combine them diminishes your effectiveness in each one.

I get the impulse behind Brian’s question, which so many authors struggle with—it’s frustrating to spend hours and weeks and months and sometimes years creating a “finished” draft of a manuscript, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or memoir, only to find that it’s still not “there” yet—your vision isn’t fully realized in the execution. Worse, often editing and revising can be even more difficult, challenging, and frustrating than writing the story in the first place. It seems so seductive to imagine editing as you go so that when you’re finished, you’re actually finished.

But trying to “write like an editor” is like inviting someone into the room to critique your every sentence as you write it—assessing, evaluating, passing judgment. It’s the critic standing over your shoulder screaming at you, with every sentence you put to paper, why it—and you—aren’t good enough.

It’s yanking yourself, over and over, from the creative wellspring of your brain, the right-brain side that needs space and freedom and inspiration to stretch toward the stars, without the practical, technical editor left brain constantly weighing in with all the logistics of the journey.

And it’s almost guaranteed to shut you down. I’d venture to say it’s one of the biggest reasons writers walk away from a project, or from writing altogether, convinced they’re no good at it.

Here’s an industry secret: No one is good at it. At least not in the sense that an author sits down, puts metaphorical pen to paper, and commits unmitigated brilliance onto the page. To borrow a phrase from Princess Bride (as I so damned often do), anyone who tells you different is selling you something. Probably literally.

The books you read and admire don’t spring into existence in the shape you see them in. After nearly thirty years as an editor I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of times how manuscripts—even by authors at the top of their games, who’ve produced multiple chart-topping bestsellers—start off rough. Often extremely rough.

Does that mean the authors aren’t talented or skilled? No. It means that the most successful authors have internalized this truth to their marrow—writing is rewriting—and they don’t waste their creative momentum or energy worrying about the “rules” or getting caught in a loop of perfectionism that smothers their inspiration and fire.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways for you to bring the practical elements of craft into the process so that your writing has structure and form, momentum and depth—so that you create a first draft that’s got “good bones” that will make completing the architecting of your story infinitely smoother and the final result more solid.

I believe so strongly in this idea that I created an online course about my favorite way writers can do this—internalize left-brain craft so that it becomes an intrinsic part of your drafting process, without pulling yourself out of the creative right brain as you weave your story. (And believe it or not the method is fun—and the course is free! J)

The more you train your brain this way, the more these craft elements osmose into you, become so much a part of you that they infuse your writing without your having to consciously focus your attention on the “editor brain” areas. It lays down track along the corpus callosum that connects your right and left brains without derailing your creativity.

Editing is where the unfettered story of the author’s imagination and vision is polished, honed, and developed into its full form, but just as it’s counterproductive to decorate a house while you’re building it, trying to edit while you’re writing will usually make the process more difficult, rather than easier, and the final product less organic and alive. Rather than inviting that judgy, critical editor brain into the room when you’re writing, learning how to banish him until it’s his time to shine may be one of the most useful and productive skills you can bring to your creative process.

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