24 February 2013

How to Love Editing and Still Actually Write

By Gayle Francis Moffet

Family folklore tells the following story: When I was a very wee child, I would scribble all over pieces of paper, call it a story, and recite it to the family. If I ever remembered a very important detail, I would backtrack in my story, correct the omission or error, and then recite that story from that place verbatim until I reached the place I had stopped to go back and correct myself.

I was not much older than this.
My glasses are not much thinner now.

I'm probably as much born editor as I am born writer. The twosome's always been a fit for me, making me one of those lucky writers who finishes a draft and can easily switch gears to editing after a day or two. I've actually gotten to the point where I edit my first draft in my head for days before I ever put it down in some form. It makes my first draft stronger and easier to edit later, and I enjoy having this sort of advantage when I sit down to work.

There is a downside to this ability, and I'll explain it this way: this post has been in my head for two weeks and is only getting out now because it's due.

The problem with being able to edit your own work (though, you should never be the only editor of your own work) is that you can get so comfortable with it that you forget you should fully form your work first. So, what's a writer to do when she (in my case) enjoys the editing process so much the story (or blog entry) never hits paper?

I've got a few workarounds. Let's take a look:

1. Write in a different way. If you're stuck in editing mode and working on your computer, switch to writing by hand. You could also try writing on your phone or tablet if you have the option. This entry finally got down because I typed it with my thumbs on my phone. By changing what I was staring at and the motion with which I did it, I think I managed to trick my brain into playing along.

2. Write something else. I write comics, and for the last year, I have spent a noticeable amount of time editing a single script. This is not normal. This actually caused my friend Jesse to threaten to take away my script until I learned to stop editing so damn much and actually put my work out there (and she'd know). After a year of editing that same script, I tucked it away and started on a new set of scripts. Completely different universe, completely different characters, and it's worked. I've got a first draft a third of the way done and gaining. I expect to have a first draft of the whole set finished by end of March.

3. Try to relax. I'm not being a wiseass. If the editing is blocking you up, do something relaxing for awhile. I've had more breakthroughs while soaking in the bath, trying to sleep, or crocheting than I've ever had staring at a Word doc and waiting for the inspiration to come. Don’t sit down and think about how writing is supposed to be fun and interesting, and don’t think about how you know the story you want to tell. The goal is to not think about the story at all and let it come back to you. Go do something else, enjoy yourself doing that, and your story will come back to you on its own.

This dress helped me knock out
no less than four plot issues and
a poem to boot.

4. Talk it out. Sometimes, to get out of your head, you have to say all the crazy words in it. One of the pieces of advice writers get when editing is to read the work out loud to catch spelling and phrasing errors. The same advice can be used for working out larger issues you find in your work. Talk the issues through with someone. Or, barring that, talk to an empty room. The neighbors might think you've lost it, but it can get you out of your head enough that you can actually figure out which pieces should stay in.

5. Edit for someone else. This only works, of course, if you actually like the editing process, so maybe it’s not for you. But, if you enjoy the editing process, put your editing away in a drawer and crack open someone else’s work. It allows you to keep working, but it lets you pull away from the work itself. When you edit yourself, you’re deeply invested in every word and line. When you edit for someone else, you’re deeply invested in the overall story. So, work on that story for awhile, and then once you feel you’ve gotten some proper distance, go give yours another whack.

But what if none of those work? You’ve tried them all, and you’re still staring at a draft that you know has a better draft in it. What do you do then? Well, I have three-part system for that, too:

  1.          Consider the fact that your inability to get through an edit is a sign that it’s not a story you should be telling.
  2.      Eat a whole cake.
  3.      Drink until you can’t feel feelings.

I'm gonna need six more of these
and your best pithy comeback.

Steps 2 & 3 are negotiable, but step 1 is something you may have to deal with. I have stacks of stories holed up on my hard drive that I’m sure could be excellent if only I could get them where I want them. Some of them have been there for years, taking up space, occasionally looked at, and then stuck back in the metaphorical drawer in the hopes I’ll be able to do something with it later. Honestly, I should delete them and let them go because if the idea ever gets to the point that I can do something with it, having an old, aggravating copy is only going to cause annoyance and possible lack of motivation.

Remember this: Writing and editing are processes. You can overdo them. They can burn you out. You can convince yourself that because you love something (like editing), you should never stop doing it until it’s produced exactly what you want, but refusing to step away and take a breath can take something you love (whether it’s the story or the process) and make it poison to you. Sometimes, you’ll write a story and discover it’s not the one you’re meant to tell. But sometimes, you can convince yourself of the same thing simply because you’re frustrated at your process. Step away from your process. Gain some perspective. Then get back in there and show that story how it’s done.

Gayle Francis Moffet is the author of Numbered with the Living (published originally in Milk Sugar Literature) and Battlefield Operations (published originally in The Battered Suitcase), amongst other works. She lives in Portland, Oregon with that guy she married and is trying to read 100 books this years. She keeps a news blog and a tumblr because she really likes the sound of her own voice, and she got the idea of this blurb from Carrie Bailey, though Carrie shouldn't be blamed for Gayle trying it out. She really, really thinks you should be reading Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja.


  1. I just want to click "LIKE" on this one. I don't have time for a proper comment now, but I'm coming back.

  2. I sometimes find that changing the colour and font of my text in Word is enough to fool my brain into thinking I'm looking at something else, something I didn't write, making editing easier!

    1. That's a good idea. Personally, I just do what I used to do when I was a kid. I have my sister edit. :)

  3. Okay, love the blurb. Needed to read this. In fact, I've written my March post on this topic, because I am struggling with it. I'm not normally an anxious writer.

    The truth is that I don't love editing. I hate spelling things correctly. I don't even like using commas. I confess. I know only enough grammar to get by. The mechanics of language are for better writers.

    But, I do have to edit and lately, I've had a few people pointing out my typos and mistakes. It seems to happen when I'm busy. I just proof read a post and then read things as I thought them. Err.

    Oh well. The main part is coping with the anxiety I feel over editing. I think I'm going to listen to a meditation podcast while I edit...