Taming the Editor on My Shoulders

Back in college, I was recruited to play second base for the softball team. The coaches had high hopes for me, and I was determined not to let them down. All went well until my first time up at bat. Then, to put it bluntly, I choked.

At first, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I knew I could hit that ball clear out of the park, and I was determined to do it. Yet time after time I struck out. Finally, my coach pulled me aside. “You’re trying too hard for the grand slam. Take it easy. Just get me a simple base hit.” His words made sense, so I gave it a try. My softball career was eventually pulled back on course.

Ten years later, I had to learn the exact same lesson in my writing. When I quit my job two years ago to freelance full-time, I had enough naïve confidence to believe I could do it. After all, I had been a closet writer for years. What could be so hard about doing it professionally?

So out went the query letters, and back came the responses. Eventually the “sorry, but we aren’t interested” letters turned into “it’s close, but no cigar.” Finally, the assignments began coming in. I had been chosen for the team, and now it was my time to bat. Then just like in college, I began to choke. Writing suddenly became stressful, and I began to question my abilities. Was I really good enough to write for these magazines? I told myself that I would prove my worth by turning in the most polished piece possible.

What had always been enjoyable and easy for me now turned into an excruciating experience. I spent hours completing my articles, carefully choosing words only to throw them out in exasperation. After completing each paragraph, I would quickly re-read it, and then begin my dissection. The rules of English class were back in charge, pushing my every word into rigid compliance.

Finally, exhausted, I turned in my first article to a national women’s magazine. It was met with silence. “Don’t you like the piece?” I asked the editor, beginning to feel nervous. “Well, yes,” came the reply, “but…”

“But what?” I demanded. “What can I do better?”

“It’s hard to put a finger on,” the editor responded, “but the piece seems so formal. Something seems to be missing.” I was perplexed. I couldn’t imagine what she thought missing, but we eventually found whatever it was in the rewrite. The next two articles I turned in received the same passive response. One of them was even turned down.

I had to admit even I didn’t enjoy reading my work. Yes, the words were crisp and clear. There were no run-on sentences or mismatched verbs. But my editor was right – something was wrong.

I had fallen into the trap of over-editing and rewriting, and it had drained all creative thought and feeling from my work. It was a trap I hadn’t even known existed, but since then I’ve learned that I’m not the only writer to struggle with it. Many a hopeful novelist has spent hours toiling over a book, only to let it languish on the shelf when it was finished. “I’ll just recheck it one more time,” the writer thinks, “maybe I’ll change a few more things.” Then the finished work gathers dust on the shelf, never to see the light of day.

Put Editing in its Place

Editing is an important part of the writing process. No writer can produce a publishable piece without correcting his or her work. But sometimes the editing process can go too far, completely taking over the author and his writing. In her book, On Writer’s Block, Victoria Nelson calls obsessive rewriting a form of writer’s block. Nelson believes that rewriting is “a delaying tactic that keeps you from new writing.”

For some, rewriting is a way of clinging to the tangible words you have already completed, in fear of the words you must still create. In other words, it becomes easier to rework than to forge ahead. But if you can realize that this is what you’re doing, then it’s easier to confront this habit and move on.

For me, the problem was more about confidence – or more specifically, my lack of it. That little editor on my shoulder kept nagging me. “But what if you’re not good enough?” it taunted as I wrote. So to prove that I was good enough, I rechecked my work to death. This had one devastating effect – all creative thought was stifled.

Ease up on Your Expectations

Going from a “hobbyist” to a serious writer was a huge mental jump for me. “This is my life’s work,” I told myself, “I have to be good at it.” But writing, like all crafts, takes practice. Don’t measure your work against everyone else. Only your own work should be used as a yardstick to measure your growth.

Perfectionism can be a killer too, and it can never be achieved. There is no perfect way to write the article or book you are working on. In the big picture, it doesn’t matter if you lead out your piece with a quote instead at statement. So why waste time struggling over it? As long as your work is clear and has heart, then people will enjoy reading it.

What I finally had to learn is this: Quit taking yourself so seriously! In an effort to bring in a perfect grand slam with my writing, I had lost the person behind the words. The editor in my mind had stifled my creativity so much that my own thoughts could not emerge. An image of my softball coach came to mind. “You’re trying too hard! Just do what you know! Give me a simple base hit.”

I had been trying to turn simple articles into masterpieces. In the meantime, I had over-edited, and my writing had lost all that made it mine. Just a simple base hit, I thought. Okay. I would give it a try. Since fiction gave me more freedom, I began with that. Pulling an idea out of the air, I sat down to write about it. With each paragraph came that same old voice, “Stop! Go back. You need to redo that!” But I didn’t listen. The words came out easily, and small bits of my sarcastic humor even crept into the piece. I didn’t look back until I had typed five pages. For me, this was the ultimate record.

Give Yourself Freedom

What I had discovered was nothing new. It’s actually a method of writing called “free-writing.” There are books that teach this method to help writers capture their own creativity. The idea is simple: instead of self-editing as you go, just write whatever comes to mind. After your creative burst has given you an idea of where you want to go on the piece, then go back and edit.

To take advantage of this free-writing concept, I devised a little system for myself. On the first draft, I tell myself that I’m just playing. I give myself permission to write whatever and however I want. The only thing I correct is spelling. Sometimes I set a time limit for myself, such as pure free-writing for at least thirty minutes. If an article is giving me problems, or if I just can’t seem to get into it, I’ll pretend that I’m writing it to a friend. This takes the serious nature out of my thought process. I type fast and furious, and enjoy the creative juices that are set free in this type of setting. In this way, writing for me becomes fun again.

Be True to Yourself

Looking over my first professional writings, I see that something else was definitely missing. I discovered what it was one day when I was cleaning out the basement. In a dark corner, tucked away behind the exercise equipment, I found a beat-up old box. It contained all of my writings from over the years. Since no one else was around, I pulled the dusty papers out and began reading. I laughed as I read the foolish, but sweet poems I had written at age ten, and cringed at the forlorn writings of my teenage years. I was surprised at my heartfelt, but well-written works in college. Then a strange thought occurred to me. Even though I had made more mistakes back then, I had been a better writer.

Reading my past work was like reading the words of a stranger. This writer wrote for the joy of it, for the simple but rewarding experience of recording the important things in life. This person wasn’t writing to fulfill the expectations of some editor at a desk in New York, or to meet a niche in the market. Instead, this young and inexperienced person that I had been wrote to record life from her perspective. And then I realized it. I knew exactly what my professional work had been missing – me.

If you lack confidence in your work, it’s easy to believe that your own voice may not be good enough. You may be tempted to upgrade to a “higher” voice in an attempt to impress others. Yet your own voice is what brings life to your work. It’s still possible to write to fit the tone of a publication without losing that note that makes the writing your own. Be true to your own voice – it’s the very heart of your writing.

Silence Any Bystanders

Everyone has factors that influence their writing. It may be the spouse who asks why you “waste your time writing,” or the college professor who told you to forget journalism as a career. It may be the parent who just “knew” you would be a successful novelist. Whatever it is, these “ghosts” often enter our thought-process as we write. Left unchecked, they may serve as editors of their own, making us revise our work through their eyes.

Is there something you are trying to prove with your writing? Is there something that is holding you back? Whatever it is, it’s helpful to free your mind of these bystanders while you write. The bystander I’ve learned to banish is my tenth-grade English teacher. Though she gave me a strong foundation to work with, she demanded that all writing adhere to the strict format. Pity the poor pupil who chose to write outside these guidelines! For many years, I only dared to construct sentences outside of the rigid format she taught. It was freeing to finally decide I could write whatever I wanted.

Find Closure

After you’re done free-writing your chapter or article, then go back and edit. I usually edit the whole piece and then put it away for a day or so, and move on to something else. Going back later gives me a fresh perspective, and it’s easier to see problem areas after some time away from my work.

After doing a final edit, send the piece on its way. Too many writers get bogged down here. Nothing will ever be perfect, so let the piece go. If you are truly unsure, and believe one more edit is necessary, put it aside for a whole week. Then take it out one more time for a final check.

Some writers hesitate in sending out their finished work because deep down they fear rejection. It becomes easier to imagine the success of your writing, than it is put it out there for someone else’s approval. But this attitude is self-defeating. If you find yourself wavering when it comes time to send your work out, then set a deadline for sending it off. Then stick to it.

Some writers never struggle with rewriting or over-editing. They simply recheck their work, send it out, and move on. But if you find yourself fighting this tendency, just being aware of it is the biggest help of all. When I finally figured out what was holding me back, I put these steps to use on the very next piece I wrote. The writing process was less stressful, and I actually enjoyed creating the piece. When it was finished, I sent it off and waited anxiously for the editor’s reply.

Two weeks later, the answer came back. “I love it. The contract is in the mail,” the editor wrote. Yes! I thought. Now I’m back in the game.

 

Category: Editing Work, Essays, Other Recent Work