The joy of editing

As much as I love writing and would love more than anything to be in a group of thinking writerly friends like the Inklings, I’ve never been part of an intimate writing group. I did join an online group back when I was on facebook. I don’t remember much about my engagement with the group, but I do remember the time someone in the group ran an informal poll asking which we preferred: writing or editing. I was genuinely surprised to find that most people said they much prefer the act of writing and creating to that of editing.

I am 100% the opposite. I hate writing. Ok, I don’t hate it, but I find writing to be quite difficult. It is really hard to put into language what exists in my head as a conglomeration of words, intuitions, images, feelings, normative evaluations and instincts, sensory experiences, and memories. How to distill all that into mere words (not just mere words, but the right mere words) is like pulling teeth (so hard I have to use a cliche phrase to convey the difficulty).

Which is why I LOVE EDITING. The words are already there! They’re probably not the best words, and may not even be correct or helpful in the way they are at first strung together, but at least they exist. Once the words exist on paper they can be played with. Manipulated. Rolled around, rearranged, ruthlessly chopped, lovingly embellished. Writing is like making pasta noodles by hand and editing is like the process of making a meal out of the pasta. It’s so much easier to make a meal when you have already made (or bought) the foundational ingredient. But being able to say you made the first ingredient? It’s all the more delicious and satisfying as a product to share with others and be proud of.

I suspect my love for editing may also arise out of a bit of intellectual laziness. It is much easier to critique existing ideas than to come up with new ones. New ideas are HARD. They are hard to find, hard to create, hard to convey. Critiquing existing ideas is so much easier. It’s so much easier that it fools people into thinking they are smarter and more capable than they are. Because they can find flaws or weaknesses in existing ideas, they think they are capable of coming up with better ideas whole cloth. Like when physics students today lament that they hadn’t been born 200 years earlier because they are really good at 1820 CE physics. But 1820 CE physics was as hard to 1820 physicists as 2020 physics is to 2020 physicists. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Not that my writing is a giant, but I do enjoy the lift of standing on its shoulders when I edit. It’s fun to add complexity, nuance, and clarity to the words I’ve already written down, to try to make them better communicate the idea I was excited about in the first place. (And yes, sometimes I have to delete a whole bunch of words and start over — I even dread the writing part of editing.)

What makes editing hard is that it requires we approach the work of our minds impersonally. Objectively? Certainly in a way more detached than seems natural. Our writings are precious and meaningful to us, as expressions of who we are and how we think and feel. It’s not easy to hack them to pieces.

Fortunately for me and editing, hacking comes more easily because writing is not what thrills me — working out ideas is what thrills me. Coming to craft something that resonates as true thrills me. It’s the end result, the “end” or purpose of the words. That is what I love, not the words themselves. Sure, sometimes I fall in love with a phrase and have a hard time killing my darlings, but for the most part, eventually I can be talked out of that star-crossed love if I realize the words are not quite doing or conveying what I want them to do or convey.

This is all made harder when I am writing for others, though, because what resonates with me may not resonate with others and then I have to REALLY practice self-denial. It’s so much more fun to be a selfish writer. / human. Sigh.

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