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OK, You Can Stop Editing Now ...

Friday, 18 September 2009

Once, when I was a boy, I drew a picture of a castle. I had little artistic ability - still don't - but for once it came out well : beautifully proportioned, finely detailed, the sweep of the walls pleasing to the eye. My teacher loved it and wanted to put it into some inter-school exhibition. Encouraged, I kept working at the picture, adding more shading, extra colour, further detail. Some of the new additions didn't work so well so I tried to rub them out, smudging my elegant lines. So I overdrew them, using thicker strokes and denser colour to mask the corrections. Then I tried again. And again. Bit by bit my fine picture dissolved away into grey-brown mud.

I mention this not because it still rankles that I didn't win the inter-school competition - oh no - but to make the point that there comes a point in any artistic work where you should just stop. You're not going to make it any better and you might ruin it instead. Works of art, they say, are never finished; they're merely left. It's certainly true with writing.

Advice books and blogs will always tell you that writing is really about rewriting. You have to polish, polish, polish. Then polish some more! If you don't you're a hopeless amateur! Cut your text by 10%! You know the sort of thing. And, yes, yes, this is often true, of course. You do have to strive for beautiful language, for elegant simplicity, for words that live and breathe. And of course - here's the spelling fascist in me speaking - grammatical errors and spelling mistakes are utterly unacceptable (although, as an aside, you do still see them in published books, even quite well-known ones.) But if you keep cutting by 10% you'll eventually end up with just a single word ...

I for one revise and polish obsessively, both as I write and also afterwards, again and again. It's incredible how, on rereading a "finished" piece after a week or so, I spot gaping flaws in it. So yes, of course, polish, polish, polish. But there comes a point when this becomes counter-productive. You want to smooth out the rough edges, for sure, but if you get rid of all the edges you just end up with homogenized mush. When a band records a song, the early takes are often the best, bum-notes and all. The over-produced, highly-polished thirty-second take can be, ironically, dull. You want life, you want warts-and-all. You want Bob Dylan, you want The White Stripes. You don't want, please, Celine Dion.

I think that for writers with a tendency to obsessiveness - I include myself in that - editing can sometimes be displacement behaviour. Also, revising is easy compared to the effort of original creation and convincing yourself you need to go through your last opus one more time might really be a way of putting off starting the next. Life is short and you have other stories to write. Make each one the best you can at the time, then set it aside. If you find yourself putting back a word that you've already removed and added two or three times before, it's time to move on. Chances are, any difference you make is going to be marginal. If you're having trouble getting published - that would be nearly all of us then - the temptation is to think that one more tweak will make the vital difference. It may, but the chances are it won't. Either you've just not struck lucky yet, or the piece isn't going to work.

If you find yourself constantly drawn to revising a piece, it may be because you really know there are fundamental problems with it you're avoiding having to face. It's easy just to get caught up in the familiar flow of something, tweaking phrasings here and there, convincing yourself you are improving it, when really you're just papering over the cracks. That's where someone else's opinion can be invaluable, of course. But then, if you're not careful, you pay too much attention to what others say. One person thinks the language is too flowery so you excise all the adjectives. Someone else thinks your world isn't vivid enough so you slip them all back in. It can go on for ever.

The trick, it seems to me, is learning to be an editor as well as a writer. Learn to read your own stuff dispassionately. Setting it aside for a time is essential. You need to be able to spot when changes genuinely need to be made, and when the piece is as good as it's going to be. Listen to other people but only take note if the same comments keep coming up. Stay true to your original vision, your own voice.

Be careful of polishing too soon. This is advice I constantly fail to take myself. If your first draft is so carefully edited that you don't want to change it for fear of marring its intricate beauty, then you're not going to want to make any big changes you need to make. Chisel out the approximate shape of your sculpture first, then smooth and shine it.

This refreshing post on the How Publishing Really Works blog touches on a similar area. Perfection doesn't exist. There are many, many succesful books out there with flaws. Possibly every one of them : I haven't read them all yet. Have you ever read Dracula, for example? Don't kill yourself striving for some unattainable ideal. Strive merely to make what you write as bloody fantastic as you can make it. Polish, polish, polish ... and then stop.

By the way, if you do need to go back to an earlier version of a manuscript then that shouldn't be a problem. Writing isn't really like drawing (on paper) at all because you can just take identical copies of your work at any point. You can keep each draft version. If you have a proper back-up scheme in place then you're covered. You do have a proper back-up scheme in place, don't you?

1 comment:

  1. Simon, enjoyed this. I'm at the editing stage at the moment and I don't do this so well. Good to get some reminders from you.


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