Geetanjali Mukherjee

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Value of Editing

I interview authors on my blog, and ask them various questions about their writing process. Many of them mention that while they love writing, they hate editing. And after I heard this enough times, I started to wonder why. And what they really meant.

This might sound boring, but I really appreciate the editing process. Especially now that I am an author, and need to reliable write more - whether blog posts or books. And here’s why.

I find starting on a project - whether the entire work or just a piece of it - intimidating. I imagine how terrible it will be, how I won’t get it right, and I put off working on it. I even stay away from my computer, from my desk, from even opening up the document to work on it.

Now that I have written several books and other large writing projects, I realize that this is a huge obstacle in my mind. I am scared to start. Because I am scared to suck. On the page. I am scared that my work will be so terrible I will be ashamed and never again be able to write anything again. And yet I also want to write my book - very badly. So here’s my problem - how do I work on my project without being deathly afraid to screw up?

I tell myself that I can edit it.

I say to myself that this is just a rough draft. Just some initial notes. I am just adding in a quote or two. Maybe some bullet points. I jot down a paragraph. And another one. But none of this resembles an actual draft in any way. This looks nothing like a piece of finished writing. And periodically as I work, I despair that it ever will.

Always always when I am in the middle of a book or other long project, I start to doubt whether I can reach the end. I ask myself - can I really pull it off? Can I get to the end? I hate my project, I avoid it. I have a lot of coffee and chocolate.

Lately this process is becoming slightly easier. I have fewer depressing thoughts about the fate of my work. I start to believe that maybe I can get to the other side. That one day quite soon this will look almost like a finished manuscript and be ready to fly out into the world.

And this is all because of editing.

My final drafts have a lot from my first draft in them. The initial ideas, the arguments, the research. Maybe even the structure, with some alterations. But in many ways the final product is unrecognizable when compared to what it had started out as - a group of disjointed, awkward, halting paragraphs stitched together. They often missed transitions. Or the phrasing was misleading. It might have seemed that a non-native English speaker had written the piece (which technically is true).

While my final draft isn’t perfect, and may still have both big-picture flaws and small typos, it is generally quite polished and reads smoothly. Sometimes when I am going over my final draft for a chapter I am taken aback, as I remember how much I struggled with it initially, and how many times I thought that I would never finish it satisfactorily.

To me editing isn’t just fixing spelling errors and punctuation mistakes. When I am editing, once I have the structure and flow of the piece in place, I work hard to polish each sentence. I want to make sure that I haven’t left anything out or made a leap in my head that I forgot to write down. Or that I didn’t take any knowledge for granted, assuming my reader would know some specialized information that I forgot to include. Or that my phrasing isn’t awkward, or the tenses mixed up. I take multiple passes over each chapter, sometimes five or six times. I know that seems excessive, but knowing that I can make it better allows me to get through each pass, allows me to acknowledge the obvious flaws and shortcomings and focus on fixing the ones I can.

I am working on a book at the moment where I am re-learning this almost everyday. I was really struggling with a particular chapter, and told myself that it was ok if it turned out to be just mediocre, basically so I could get it done. As I kept working on it, with each iteration it got better and better and now it is of the same quality as the other chapters. To me that seems like a miracle, because only a week or so ago I was thinking I might not get the book done because I couldn’t imagine getting the chapter to where it needed to be.

If you see editing as a necessary evil, as the province of oxford commas and prepositions, then you’re missing out its true value. To me, editing allows me to take the leap of putting words on the page, even when they don’t feel right, even when I am certain my writing is absolute garbage and has no merit whatsoever. The better I get at editing, the more I trust the process, the more I can allow myself to write those crucial first drafts. Like any writer, I get ideas for books all the time. In fact, for years I had many ideas, but never allowed myself to write any of them, because every attempt at putting them onto paper looked amateurish, fell so far short that I believed I couldn’t mold it into something viable. Something good. I really regret all the years I spent not writing, for fear that my writing was terrible, that I couldn’t get the words to come out just write.

I didn’t know about editing then.

I didn’t know that I could change the words, I could polish them. That given enough patience and perseverance, I could turn a terrible draft into a finished product that although not quite as lofty as that in my imagination, was so improved from my initial scratchings as to merit a sense of wonder - I turned this pile of hay into golden thread, if not into gold.

If you are one of those writers who doesn’t like to edit, I suggest that you see editing not as an enemy to do battle with, but an old friend who is there to watch your back, to smoothen the way forward, to give you a boost up. Thank your friend. Buy him a drink. Get to know him better. He is a far more valuable friend than you have given him credit for.
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