By Big World Writing Club Moderator A1
Recently I had the opportunity to look at some of my handwritten manuscripts from high school. I remember quite clearly my conviction that any sign of imperfection had to be ruthlessly extirpated, so that no hint remained that it might have been, or what it might have been; I’d already been put on notice by my working-class mother that I hadn’t been born into privilege and therefore wasn’t going to be able to coast. (Scores of 97% were inevitably greeted with pointed questions about the 3% I’d missed.)
I can hold up any chosen manuscript sheet and see those redactions in solid Bic pen from across the room.
On revisiting writing practice decades later, I learned to throw only the thinnest of lines through my mistaken words. Sometimes the path not taken is just as telling as the one that you finally chose.
Looking at those handwritten lines on looseleaf paper, I can call up as if it were yesterday the running commentary about correct grammar and spelling and the avoidance of any infelicity… the famous or infamous inner editor. Like a lot of students, I wrote a single draft, typed it out (sometimes revised slightly on the retyping) and left it as that. Over the years, I’ve learned something else:
Sometimes the inner editor is your friend.
And when you recognize your friends is in a crisis.
Most of my writing friends have very well-developed inner editors, so I forget that this isn’t a universal.
I remember it, in a hurry, when I see self-indulgent rambling writing, prose so foggy that I have no idea what the writer actually meant to say, or high-flown phrases used wrong. In graduate school my morning prayer, such as it was, went something like this, “I thank you, God, that I am not grading freshman composition.”
My inner editor is a fierce beast; it thinks I don’t feed it enough, so I let it run untrammeled through other people’s writing. I’ve been known to whip out the blue pencil for really egregious bits of writing in the newspaper, student literary magazines—especially student literary magazines—but that’s for pleasure, like scratching the itch that can’t be reached. And the inner editor is no respecter of persons; I’ve blue-penciled Dostoevsky and Proust.
When it gets serious is when someone is paying me to read the unreadable, and to ‘polish’ it so it will meet inspection,.
Once upon a time I had a day job, more than one day job, that required such exertions, generally on behalf of people who thought that editing was easy. They tended to have only a faint acquaintance with the English language, and to think that spelling was for sissies. (English was their third language, with nothing in places one or two.) Real men didn’t worry about whether it was spelled right, or made sense, or qualified as correctly used English vocabulary. The gruntwork of actual writing — that’s what the female lowlies were for. Once the writing was “cleaned up,” the boss could sign his name to it and take credit.
Privilege, yes, social privilege makes you stupid, which underlings of all stripes have known for centuries, and played to our advantage whenever we can, because the odds are in favor of the house. The worst writing I’ve ever had to read has come from people who thought that their every word was golden. They also tended to be the kind of people who loved the sound of their own voice, and to have been encouraged in that affection by eager hangers-on.
What makes the difference between the complacent amateur and the hardened professional? The deliberate willingness to unleash the inner editor, and to recognize it as a friend when we need to carve away everything that isn’t the story. Separating first draft generation from first-pass revision seems to build up the editor’s power; that pointy-toothed beast is about five times more critical than it would have been if I’d let it out of its cage during draft one. It’s fierce for blood; it picks up on every bit of bloat, every awkward phrase. I read aloud, which helps even more. Anything that I trip over gets cut without mercy.
My inner editor has allies outside the walls, too. Sometimes I don’t see the flaws until a beta reader points them out. Never mind. I cringe, and then I take out the knife. It’s a delicate operation, taking out the fat without damaging the live part. The breakneck first draft guarantees that there will be a live part. The fat, well, that’s just me noodling around until I get the thing in focus. It’s what the visual artists call process materials: the sketches on backs of envelopes, the underdrawings, the preliminary compositional studies. It’s not the painting yet, bit it’s a necessary step along the way.
The cold hard secret: writing takes a long time, no matter how you do it. I have friends who manage 500 words a day, which are more or less the right 500 words; I’m more in the range of 1000-2000 words a day, but I have lots of cutting and rearranging to do.
But the inner editor is the Mutual Friend all Real Writers have in common.