Are you a perfectionist?
Having perfectionist tendencies is both the bane and joy of my writing existence. I graduated with a degree in English Lit and went on to work as a technical writer and editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader. As a result, I often approach writing fiction the same way I used to approach writing a technical manual: with an eye toward ease of reading, fluidity, and making sure my words make sense.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this!
We all want our words to be accessible and to make sense.
We want them to be sparse but not too sparse. We want them to be emotional but the prose shouldn’t be purple. My tendency is to stop, go back, take a look at what I’ve written, and make sure it’s up to snuff.
That’s a great thing to do…once you’re done with the first draft. So how do we tell our inner editors to back off and let us write without that critical voice insisting you’re doing this all wrong! The comma doesn’t go there! You’ve got typos! No one speaks that way. According to the Chicago Manual of Style…
Quieting that voice isn’t an easy task, especially if you’re like me and have had years of training in finding all the grammatical errors as well as the developmental ones. It took me a few years of forging bravely ahead during NaNoWriMo before I learned one simple, undeniable truth that let me finally shut off my inner editor. Are you ready for the big reveal?
Editing = Procrastinating
Does that mean that editing is a form of procrastination all the time? Of course not; this former editor swears it! But while you’re drafting? Yes, dear writer.
Editing is perhaps the highest and most self-defeating form of procrastination we can engage in while we’re drafting, because it masquerades so beautifully as something helpful and productive.
Part of the magic of drafting a novel is getting into the zone. You know the one I’m talking about? Where the words stop feeling like you’re pulling teeth to get them onto the page. Where they just flow. Where our muse sits on our shoulder directing the words. Inspiration, divine intervention…call it what you will, but that moment where everything clicks and the words pour out is one of the most joyful things about writing fiction.
Now put on the brakes to that euphoric feeling, go back, and start criticizing yourself. Start picking apart your words. Start telling yourself that you can do better. Start fussing over syntax, grammar, description, plot…everything on the page.
All done? Great! Now hop right back into that groove and…
Oh, wait. What? You can’t? The mood is ruined? As long as it’s ruined, why not go back to the beginning of your work in progress and pick it all to pieces? That’s going to be productive, isn’t it?
Please don’t do that. It won’t be productive, not in the long run. You’ll have half a manuscript and no desire to finish it. Why? Because you’ll have sucked all the joy out of the experience. What happens when we stop to edit as we go is that we put stumbling blocks in our paths.
We start to think of writing as a technical experience instead of a creative one.
Where ideas were flowing like rivers, we force them to dry up and evaporate. Along with that, our inspiration takes a hike.
You’ve heard the terms right-brained and left-brained, haven’t you? Most creative types consider themselves to be largely right-brained—that’s where the creativity supposedly dwells. And the more logical and analytical tend to be termed left-brained. Recent studies conclude that there is less left/right-brained-ness than we might think. My personal assumption (and I’m no scientist) is that we use different parts of our brains for different tasks.
We’re all capable of both great creativity and great logic. But the way we process those disparate types of information is very different.
I can only call on my experiences as a technical writer and editor. When I worked on computer manuals all day and then went home to try to write fiction, I couldn’t do it. I don’t know the physical mechanism behind it all (again, no scientist here), but the way I described it was that my thought process had been wired to work in a certain analytical and logical way all day long. Then, when I tried to switch gears and turn on the creativity, I was too tired to evoke the emotions I needed to write fiction. Was I a right-brained person in a left-brained job? Who knows. I believe we’re all “wired” to be able to perform both tasks…but not both at once.
That’s why the saying editing is procrastination resonated so well with me. Because procrastinating is something I understand at a fundamental level, I was able to equate the shift required to perform an editing task with a lack of forward progress (procrastination). The corollary to that is that if I don’t procrastinate, there will be much forward progress. Hopefully of the gleeful kind.
Not All Procrastination is Bad
The image of a writer sitting in front of a computer (or typewriter or legal pad) for hours or days at a time, eyes glazed over, our fingers our only moving body parts, is not all that lovely. We all need to take breaks. Sometimes, getting up to take a walk around the house or to do some non-writing task that makes us feel like we’re trying to avoid writing when in fact, we need the break. We need to recharge our creative batteries.
Yes, you can go out for coffee. Yes, you can have your favorite snacks. Yes, you can even go back and reread what you’ve written. You can share what you’ve written with a cheerleader or positivity reader if the gratification of immediate feedback is what keeps you going. (That’s me. I love having people read along while I write.) You can do whatever you want…as long as you don’t bring your inner editor along for the ride.
Of course you’re going to be thinking about your story. Of course you’ll have insights into ways you can fix it. So what do you do about that? Jot down your notes. Keep them handy. Then, once you’re done drafting, you can go back and make the improvements. Or if it’s a huge, fundamental game-changer, you can add it and move forward from that point.
Drafting is a Roller Coaster Ride
Don’t start editing in earnest until you’ve finished your draft. You can’t get on a roller coaster in the middle of the ride, and you definitely shouldn’t jump off the roller coaster in the middle of the ride, either. So whenever you feel the urge to do just that, remind yourself that you are not the Queen of Procrastination (I claimed that title a long time ago). You want forward progress, not backward progress.
There’s only one thing to do: get back in the saddle (or the driver’s seat, or whatever imagery floats your boat) and keep on writing. Then, once you’ve typed THE END, you can treat yourself to as much editing time as your heart desires.