Editing is The Actual Writing

Writing produces words, editing creates stories.


Tealfeed Guest Blog

3 years ago | 4 min read

Writing and editing tend to be difficult when done by the same person.

There is one part in us that wants to create — writing is an act of creation — and explore whatever there is to explore. We search for ideas, thoughts, experiences and try to find the right words to recreate them on paper and share them with others.

Whereas editing is an act of perfection. Here, the focus is on beauty, on defining the right structure, the cadence, the musicality.

If feels like carving marble sculptures. We rough out the raw block of material by eliminating unwanted parts and polish until perfection. Editing — so it feels — is therefore also an act of elimination.

And it’s a constant back and forth that creates frustration among many writers.

Pour Your Thoughts Onto the Page and Don’t Look Back

Staring at a blank page while having hundreds of thoughts is where the creation starts for many writers. It’s the moment when something imaginative becomes real. While to the outer world we seem motionless, mentally we’re all over the place.

This is also the moment when the nasty editor tries to impose a structure and express these thoughts in the right vocabulary.

The trick is to let these thoughts escape your mind as they come — pure, unedited, sometimes with no sense at all.

There are some methods to silence the editor.

Calvin Trillin, a former Times and The New Yorker staff reporter, starts the process with writing a pre-draft draft, or what he calls the “Vomit Out”.

“I’d write it without bothering to look at any of my notes. When I worked at The New Yorker, I was always afraid the cleaning women would find my ‘Vomit Out’. Then one cleaning women would read it out loud to the others. ‘Just listen to this!’ she’d say. ‘And this guy calls himself a writer!’ Then they’d all laugh and slap their brooms against the desks like hockey players.”

Trillin’s vomit out is the raw outcome of his thoughts. It would be bad and written in deteriorated language.

Often, we are emotionally attached to the first attempts of writing. We are wondering why it wasn’t born perfect. The newly hatched sentences are unclear, with no logic, verbose, and boring, full of clutter and cliches. It lacks rhythm. It can be read in several different ways.

But that’s okay. Don’t worry about it too much now. Just type. If you still can’t resist editing at this stage, try this: don’t look at the screen or turn it off completely. This will keep the editor on hold, at least for a while.

Strip Every Sentence to Its Cleanest Components

Once you have your vomit out, your pre-draft draft, you can begin the editing. Editing is there to make the piece ready for publication. It’s where the game is won or lost. Revision of the text — rewriting, refining — is the essence of a well-written piece.

“Revision isn’t cleaning after the party, revision is the party.” — Lawrence Weschler

Richard Preston, another The New Yorker writer, and bestselling author, also writes quickly the first draft without going back. There’s no grammar checking, no sensing of the rhythm, no structuring. Just ramming down of the words on the paper.

But he loves revising. By then he knows that what he has is something that is going to be good. Now he has just to concentrate on writing it well.

“I revise sequentially. I print out the manuscript every day and edit. I worry it half to death, although I know I should just leave it alone and get it done.”

Editing means usually eliminating — eliminating the excess of words. Long-winded sentences that lead to nothing become fresh and crisp. The rhythm starts to emerge. The structure follows a clear logic.

If done properly, the next revised draft always becomes shorter. When Stephen King started out his writing career, an editor gave him this advice:

2nd Draft = 1st Draft — 10%.

No Drafts Please — Final Piece Only

Some authors, however, write and edit at the same time. They just won’t move to the next sentence without marking the previous one as final.

Gay Talese is one of these writers. One of the founding fathers of literary journalism does little to no rewriting. When one page is done, it is done. It’s not a draft, it’s a finished piece.

“I don’t tear stuff apart and move material around at the end. It is too tightly woven for me to be able to move stuff around. It isn’t a draft, it is a finished piece.”

Talese has also an unusual process of this writing-editing. He pins his final, edited, pages to the wall to get a perspective.

“I can see how the scenes move, how the language works, how the sentences flow. I want to look at it fresh, as if somebody else wrote it. I used to pin the pages up on the wall and then sit on a chair across the room looking at them through binoculars. But the office I have now is too narrow for that.”

Having Trouble Editing Your Own Piece? Try the Following

1. Unfamiliarize yourself from your written piece

Jane Kramer, an award-winning book author, and journalist changes the indentation and font size and creates little columns that look exactly the same as The New Yorker. By doing so, she unfamiliarizes herself with the piece, as would a stranger write it.

“It gives me that necessary break between the me who wrote it and the me who is reading it and saying, ‘God, how could anyone have written this?’

Another great way to defamiliarize from own work is to store it away and not look at it for a couple of weeks (Stephen King suggests at least six weeks).

2. Change locations

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (Random Family), a journalist, says:

“I keep writing until I have a rough draft, which is usually a bunch of jumbled, out-of-order scenes, or, really, fragments. I then print them out, and take them away from my house, perhaps to a coffee shop, and read them.”


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