All writers have to be a bit schizophrenic I think. It is a craft which requires you become not one, but two people, a writer and an editor.
The writer is the ‘you’ who provides the words, he or she is free-thinking and open-minded, working on blank pages where anything is possible and ideas can roam wild. The editor comes along afterwards and has to be someone who doesn’t care for the feelings of the writer one jot, only for the quality of the work.
He didn’t mince his words did he? But then, this is a guy who fought bulls for a hobby – his inner editor and inner writer were no doubt tough enough to slug it out with each other without too many hurt feelings.
When you have your editing hat on your job is to take the words given to you by your flighty writer and hone them so that they are as good as they can be.
Here’s another quote for you about the writing and editing process. Samuel Johnson advised: “where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
On the face of it that’s a curious piece of advice – why would you cut something you consider to be good? But it gets to the heart of the relationship between your inner writer and inner editor. The writer believes the passage to be good – the tough but fair editor realises that, in the context of the work as a whole, it is not.
It’s very important to establish some distance from what you have written when you edit it. You need to approach it as though it is by someone else – someone you are indifferent to.
I think it was Zadie Smith who suggested that, as an editor, you should read your own work not only as a stranger would, but as an enemy would – eagerly looking for mistakes, seeking to put the work down and decry it as inadequate. That’s how hard you need to be on your writer self in order to produce work which is as good as it can be.
Sometimes it helps if you have left the piece of writing in a drawer for a while before you rewrite it – that way you can come to it fresh and so edit what is really there, rather than what you thought you wrote. You can look on a paragraph you once thought particularly fine and decide it is surplus to requirements.
Alexander Pope advised would be writers: “Keep your piece ten years.” (basically in the hope they would leave him alone for that long.) That might be a little excessive but a few months might not be a bad idea.
Another trick I feel helps me when I abandon my writer and become a ruthless editor is to make two versions of the piece I am editing. The first I put aside in a folder, untouched, the second I work on. That way, however ruthless my decisions turn out to be I can always go back to what I originally wrote if I choose too – I have done nothing irrevocable. It is surprising how seldom I go back to the original version.
My editor might be a tough task-master, but he is very often right!
Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.