Saturday, July 06, 2013

Writing Advice

My lovely and talented wife is working on a non-fiction book.  It is about becoming a writer.  Not another how-to book, more like pathnotes.  Anyway, she asked me to expand and write down something we were talking about:

The difference between editing a book and herding cats is that cats are way less insecure and neurotic than writers.

Maybe my experience won’t fly here—I’m not a fiction guy.  The books I’ve published and edited are non-fiction.  Intense subject matter, violence and criminals and things, but not stories.  Which means that a lot of the people who write this stuff are subject matter experts first and writers second. Sometimes a distant second.

I noticed a few things editing.

These subject matter experts, the best of the best, would shyly and hesitantly ask if maybe, just maybe, they might have an idea that might make a story that maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t hate.  As if I was doing them a favor.  These hard-assed violence professionals turned into shy teenagers asking for a date.

There is a lot of insecurity about writing.  It’s something that you have not just done since grade school, it is something that has always been judged.  Always evaluated.  If you weren’t the one who got the gold star you felt bad and told yourself you weren’t a good writer.  If you did get the gold star, you worried you wouldn’t be that good again.  If your parents told you that you might be a writer someday it seemed like such a huge impossibility…

So they would send me the manuscript, and in every single case, the manuscript was good.  Just because you are insecure and just because you have been judged doesn’t mean you can’t write.  For the most part, most of us have been writing since we were six years old.  Odds are you’re actually pretty good at it.  Writing is just like talking, once you get the insecurities out of the way.

So I got a good manuscript and I would send a little note saying, “Great! Thank you!”  And many of the authors would send me a note saying, “Oh, wait.  That wasn’t the real article.  That was just a rough draft.  Here’s the real article.”

Out of insecurity, in some weird and misguided act of ego-defense, most had sent a draft, not the finished manuscript.  You see, that way, if I rejected it, I wasn’t rejecting their best work.  I wasn’t rejecting them.

And here’s the part that writers need to hear: In every single case the amended article they sent me was worse than the original.  In the draft, they were experts just communicating something they felt passionate about.  It was brilliant and raw.  In the second drafts, they were trying to be writers and it sucked the soul out of each and every piece.

Assuming you have basic writing skill, if you feel passionate about something you will write something raw and powerful.  It will be good.  If you feel nothing about a subject but have basic writing skill (and intelligence), you will write something very clear.  It will be good.

Both are good.  Both are different types of good.

If you try to edit the passionate to make it more clear, you will ruin it. If you try to edit the clarity to make it more passionate, you will ruin it.

Run with the type of good that you have.


Flinthart said...

Full disclosure here: I'm a more or less professional writer, with plenty of fiction behind me. And yes, this is pretty damned good advice... with regard to non-fiction!

Fiction is a much trickier breed of cat.

pax said...

Some awesome stuff there.

I would change only one thing about what you said: "If you try to edit the passionate to make it more clear, you will ruin it. If you try to edit the clarity to make it more passionate, you will ruin it."

Added emphasis not in the original to say this: this is what an editor is for. Not to judge, not to berate, not to belittle. It takes a huge amount of trust to let an editor do that job for you, but the payoff can be pure gold.

A really good editor can take your passion and make it clear, or your clarity and make it sing. And she can do that without changing your voice, just as a good microphone amplifies but does not distort the singer's voice.