December 13, 2012

Does editing make you a better writer?

Editing is one of the few jobs where I think maybe I could do that.  Actually, I think that about lots of jobs, but it’s quickly followed by ummm no, I wouldn’t want to.  (And I really do try not to go around saying or even thinking this because, let's face it, writing has to be the #1 profession where loads of people think that they can do it and feel compelled to tell you about it.  So I conclude that no matter what my feelings are about my abilities, I  probably have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to what other people do for a living....) 

Nevertheless, given my editing aspirations, I was really excited and charged with a special feeling of responsibility when a friend  kindly asked me to take a look at her novel draft.  (“Allowed me” might be more accurate, given that there had been some pleading on my part to let me read it.)  She had very generously and rapidly and, most importantly, usefully given me notes on my own draft during my second-last revision, and I felt all the gravity of wanting to be as useful to her as she was to me.

And was I?  I hope so.  I’m a great admirer of her writing, so I knew that any comments I might have — if, indeed, I could come up with any at all — would probably have to do with structure or plot.  If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile (maybe…I can’t remember how much I might have ranted about it here) or have heard me lament about the process of writing my own novel, you’ll know that neither one is exactly my strong suit.  Not yet.

But I think this is something I’d like to do.  Editing.  I feel like I’m good at it, or I can be, when I can get inside a story.  And of course, half of writing, my own writing, I mean, is editing, too.   

I’ve edited things for people before.  I’ve taught creative writing, and I think I’m an okay instructor once I get past the stomach butterflies of speaking in front of a group.  It's true that sometimes I’ve found it a little hard in workshops I’ve been leading or participating in when it came time to giving comments on manuscripts that were very far removed from my own kind of writing (things in totally different genres or modes) or on things that seem almost beyond help (at least, in my point of view).  It’s not very constructive to say, Well, I’d start with the last word, hit the backspace key, and keep going until you hit the first word.  It's rare, but sometimes a very small part of me wants to say this.  But of course there’s always a way to improve something, even if it means keeping the idea and starting over with it from scratch.  

But will editing someone else’s work make you a better writer?  Or teaching craft?  I can only think that it will.  These are important hours logged with one’s mind and pen to the fiction grindstone. 

And yet.  What may be easy to see in someone else’s words can remain obscure in your own...I think we know this to be true.  And what could be worse than a little extra false confidence?  (Some false confidence is, I think, necessary for the basic act of writing at all.)  Or even the reverse: a more heightened awareness of the potential pitfalls?  Most of us are already too well aware of them, anyway — clichés littering the page, pet words creeping in again and again.  And whoops.  There goes the necessary false confidence.

So I'm not quite sure.  I think that editing and teaching must make you a better editor and teacher.  But when it comes to writing, I suspect we're all always in the same boat. 


Rebecca Rosenblum said...

Hey Saleema,

Editor-as-writer, or writer-as-editor, is a concept/conundrum dear to my heart! I've been working various editorial and semi-editorial capacities for years, and I think every new take on putting words in order makes me a little stronger at my own keyboard, a little more aware of the possibilities both good and bad.

I also had a job inputting editorial changes into manuscripts in progress, and that was incredibly valuable too. To watch someone--someone really good--take apart a manuscript and put it back together so that it worked was really thrilling, and educational too. I think it maybe made me braver about hacking my own work apart--just because I wrote it doesn't mean it's good, and just because it isn't good doesn't mean it couldn't be. Before that gig, I don't think I would've realized I could save a story by cutting it in half, or putting the beginning at the end, or adding a character. Editors see possibilities that sometimes writers, so deep inside the reality in the fiction, don't.

Wow, what a ramble--told you it was a dear subject! Happy editing!

Alice Zorn said...

Excellent subject, Saleema.
I agree with Rebecca that the work of editing is always a learning experience about what can be done with writing, which you can really only see when you stand outside the writing. We can only get that experience when reading another writer's work. We're too close to our own. Can't see the verbal tics and foibles.
Can we then take what we learn back into our own work? Hopefully, yes, in part. Though I share your scepticism as to how far that works. I can think of excellent editors whose writing... um... doesn't fly very high.
When I agree to read a work in progress, I do it in the spirit of giving back some of the skills I've been taught by others who've read my works in progress. How did you put it? Keeping one's mind and pen to the fiction grindstone. In that sense we learn.
Yeah, me too, I enjoy editing.

saleema said...

@Rebecca, thanks for your thoughts. I'm really heartened to read this! I can see that cutting up and restitching or re-imagining specific parts is a skill that can only improve with practice. And being brave about such moves with one's own work-- that's amazing. This would be such a huge help.

@Alice, I those editors we're each separately thinking of...maybe they were always editors first, rather than writers, and that explains it. The best writers can't be the best editors because they're just too busy (and vice versa)! And maybe this is why we haven't heard of many.

Alice Zorn said...