A Writer’s Dilemma : Creating or Editing

romantic novelist busy creating or editing

The writing life is hard. And some parts of it are harder than others. [Yes, I know. Cue violins?]

light bulb image for ideasWhen i do talks for readers, they regularly ask me, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I answer. Of course I do. But for me — and, I suspect, for a lot of other writers — the challenge isn’t finding new ideas to write about. My challenge is turning the zillions of ideas fizzing around my brain into words on the page.
Thousands and thousands of words.

man reading book in open air

If you’ve read any great books recently, the chances are that you raced through thousands of words in a few hours. Perhaps you missed out on several hours’ sleep because you just had to keep turning the pages? That’s really pleasing for the writer. But it’s also daunting. Because you, dear reader, may well want another book by the same author.
Now. Immediately.

It takes a few hours to read a great book. It takes months, or years, to write one.

Getting the words down : creating or editing?

During the long time when we’re writing the book, we keep coming up against the same familiar dilemma: creating or editing?

woman with headache at computer screen, creating or editingReaders who are not also writers may wonder what on earth I’m on about. Many (perhaps most?) authors will recognise that dilemma. Creating new words is daunting. A white page, or a blank screen — one is as scary as the other. There’s a bit of the writerly brain that tends to say “You’re writing rubbish,” or “You’ll never get this story right,” or (seductively) “You’re not going to produce good words today, so why not go off and drink coffee / do your accounts / scrub the floor. You’ll write better tomorrow.”

It’s quite something when scrubbing a floor is preferable to creating new words, isn’t it?

But there’s another seductive option: editing.

What’s the difference?

woman opens window onto bright lightCreating or editing: aren’t they much the same, though?

Well, no, actually. For a start, they use different bits of our brain. And therein lies part of the problem. (We look in detail at the challenges of maintaining creativity in our full-day Explorers workshop, if anyone would like to know more.)

When we create a new story, with new words and thoughts on that scary white page, we’re following our free spirit along paths that may be new to us. Into the dark forest, along the romantic sea shore, down the rabbit hole? We’re inventing, dreaming, allowing our deepest instincts to direct our thoughts. And our words.

woman in dreamy fantasy landscapeIt can be a daunting process. And it’s fragile. The mood and the vision can crumble at a single touch from the icy hand of logic. Once it’s gone, and reality has intruded, it can be very difficult to recover the creative mood. (Remember the Person from Porlock, whose mundane visit interrupted Coleridge’s creation of the poem Kubla Kahn? That poem was never finished.)

Editing is not creating

Scrabble tiles EditingEditing is when an author goes back to the words she’s already written, objectively assesses how well they work and tries to make them work better. It’s a logical process. Like arranging letters in Scrabble to get the best score.

Editing has to be done. It may involve the addition of new words or sentences or paragraphs. It may involve radically changing the characters or the basic structure of the story. But often it’s just tiffling (as Sophie would say) — the author spending hours fiddling with words here and there while telling herself that she’s working or writing or improving the work-in-progress. (Not quite the same as procrastination, but close.)

bossy woman with glasses and fixed stareEditing is a product of that bossy bit of our brain that wants to apply logic to everything and really, really wants to be RIGHT.
All The Time.

But creating can’t be right; not in the 2+2=4 logical sense of being correct. Creating words can produce good results; even brilliant ones. But right?

No, I don’t think so. Writing is not a mathematical puzzle with a single correct answer. And getting into Editing mode too soon or too often can ruin what the writerly free spirit can create.

bearded man behind maskGet thee behind me,
(editing) Satan

How to deal with the editing devil and its temptations?

Here follow some suggestions from a confirmed sinner. I’ve mentioned before that I have a PhD in Procrastination.

And I can tiffle for Britain. Olympic standard, probably 😉

Find your most creative time and place — and guard it jealously

  • woman with candle in fantasyIf you’re most creative when you’re just waking up, or still half-dreaming, try to write then. A laptop or a notebook by the bed might help. Or (if you’re alone) a dictating machine.
  • If a particular place or time of day gets your creative juices flowing, use it. And don’t let anyone else do a Person from Porlock on you.

Stimulate your senses

  • lit candles in gloomImmersing yourself in the delights of the senses can help you to enter the creative mood. A sofa surrounded by scented candles, maybe? A walk through a wood full of bird song? Floating in warm water? It works best if you don’t analyse, but just feel. And enjoy the sensations. If your characters join you there, you’ll understand how they feel, too. And the words will probably come by themselves.
  • woman with light against dark roomDarkness can help because it turns off the dominant sense of sight and helps to reduce distractions. Try lying down in the dark. Feel the fabric under your fingers. Listen to the sounds coming through the open window. Breathe the scents, whether good or bad. Immerse yourself in the story they are telling you. And let your imagination flow into the story you and your characters want to tell.

Shut down your editing brain

Creating on a computer may work for you, but it does invite the editing devil to poke its nose in. It can see the paragraph you’ve just typed and tell you it needs improving. If you yield to the temptation to tiffle, your creative mood may be lost.

Writers use tricks like these to stay in the creative zone:

  • exclamation mark in fireWorking on the kind of keyboard and screen that doesn’t allow you to see more than a few lines, such as an Alphie. Editing is effectively impossible so you may as well keep writing new stuff.
  • Dictating to your phone or a dictating machine. It doesn’t matter what you sound like or how many long silences there are. No one else will hear it, will they? And it’s too difficult to go back and edit so, once you’ve got the hang of it, you just keep talking. (You do the editing much later, when you type up your stream of consciousness. You may be surprised at how much good stuff you’ve created.)
  • Writing with pen and paper. Not for everyone, this, but avoiding screen and keyboard altogether does work for some writers as a means of keeping the editing devil away.
  • Writing new stuff for a set number of minutes, say, 30 or 45. Even 10 can be good. A timer helps. No editing —and no stopping! — until timer goes ping. Some writers find this approach liberating.

Other suggestions?

trumpeter blasts saluteIf you’re the kind of writer who can sit down after breakfast and write 1,000 words every day without fail (and without being seduced by tiffling), I salute you.

And I envy you.

But — whatever kind of writer you are, and whatever problems you encounter — if you have tricks and tips for getting into the creative mood and banishing the editing devil, please do share them. We can all learn from each other on this one.

Joanna Maitland, authorJoanna

13 thoughts on “A Writer’s Dilemma : Creating or Editing

  1. Sue McCormick

    I feel for you and all the other creative writers who brighten my days.

    I have an editorial brain, rather than a creative one. (I earned my living for 30 years as a copy editor.)

    My only writing is expository – and is frequently limited to comments like these. And even in a brief comment, I seldom finish a comment without editing as I go.

    I CAN write: instructions, explanations, and memories; but for me it’s almost impossible to put the editor on hold. I truly don’t see how you creative folk manage it. But I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the joy you bring me.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      Thank you so much, Sue. Your comment gave me a lovely warm and fuzzy feeling. I’m sure other authors will agree that comments like yours from our readers make it all worthwhile.

      Reply
  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    For me it’s the shower where I talk in the character’s voices sometimes to work into an elusive scene. Of course it doesn’t necessarily come out the same on keyboard. Once I get started on a book it’s usually okay, but getting started? Oy vey! Currently busy telling myself I need to research more before starting, plus a load of other excuses, all perfectly valid, but nevertheless count as procrastination .

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      I don’t talk in the shower, Liz, but I do think into the characters’ minds and voices. I’m one of those who regularly uses a dictating machine. If I’m in creative mode, I’ll take it into the shower room and, as soon as I’m out (and even before I’m dry) I’ll switch it on in order to get down as much as I can remember of what I’ve created. If I leave it any longer, I tend to forget my pearls 😉

      Reply
  3. Sophie

    As a prize tiffler, I endorse every word you say, Joanna.

    Thank you, Sue, for reminding me that a) it’s worth it and b) the reader doesn’t notice the wallowing through mud that has gone into the making. (Can you tell that I’m editing today?)

    Sara Craven used to say that water worked for her, too, Liz. Of course the full scented bath with Mozart was ideal. But, she would add grimly, just getting your hands in water and doing the washing up worked, too, and it didn’t take so damn long.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      We obviously have to fight over which of us gets the gold medal for Olympic tiffling, Sophie.

      I find the just-woken-up mode can work well. I was lying in bed this morning, dictating to my little machine, while DH went downstairs to make the tea. Luckily, I finished the scene just as I heard his step on the stair. I’m not brash enough to be dictating while he’s listening!!

      Reply
  4. Sarah Mallory

    This was the ideal procrastination for me today, Joanna, as I am supposed to be editing my latest work 🙂

    What a great way to describe these two processes, you have clarified them so well. I love starting a new book, the possibilities, allowing the creative stream to just flow, but once the first (dirty) draft is done, I quite enjoy the editing, because it can be so much less tiring than the creative side (not always, you understand, but often).

    So now, back to what I am supposed to be doing this Sunday morning….

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      It sounds as if you’re good at keeping the editor away until the first draft is done. I find that incredibly difficult. The devil on my shoulder keeps prompting me to tiffle. AND telling me that that’s a perfectly good thing to be doing when, actually, it isn’t. Because I should be getting on with the first draft and doing new stuff.

      Reply
    1. Sarah Mallory

      Tempting, Kate? It is exhausting, infuriating, frustrating, engrossing and absorbing. You work impossibly long hours, spend ages researching facts that never get into the books, writing words that you subsequently cut and end up full of self doubt.

      But having said all that, I love it! It is in my very bones, and I can’t live without writing!

      Reply
    2. Joanna Post author

      I think Sarah’s reply says it all, Kate. Most writers just have to write but it’s no bed of roses. OTOH when someone like Sue tells us about the pleasure she gets from our books, writing can feel like a bed of roses. Mad, eh?

      Reply
  5. Liz Fielding

    My editor sits on my shoulder and I find it hard to shut her up. I am a constant rewriter. I think it’s got worse with every book. My Alphie broke, but I think one would help right now. Or maybe I need to dig out the Dragon and start dictating again.

    Reply
    1. Joanna Post author

      Sympathies, Liz. I have those problems, too. I gave my Alphie away so I now rely on dictating. I have used Dragon but I prefer a dictating machine. I haven’t tried dictating to my phone but I know some people do. Worth a try?

      Reply

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