Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Editing is a Creative Act (In The Word Cellar)

Diana+ (Kodak 400-VC3)

"We generally go for a pretty straight definitive version of what the song sounds like it should be, and then, deconstruct it a little bit to see if there's some more exciting way to approach it. There's no reason -- at all -- not to destroy it. We made it, so it's ours to destroy. And that's liberating and exciting in a really creative way." ~Jeff Tweedy, singer/songwriter (in "I am trying to break your heart," a documentary film about the band Wilco)

The writer's worst nightmare: The blank page.

The writer's other worst nightmare: The editing process.

Both have a reputation for intimidating writers and making us long to get up and do some laundry. Personally, I think the blank page is way scarier than editing. The beginning of a project -- those moments (or years) before a word is written -- can paralyze me with possibility. I'm working on changing that, trying to see the blank canvas as an invitation rather than a terrifying wasteland.

Maybe you think revision is worse. Maybe you consider it a dark monolith squatting between you and the joy of a finished piece of writing. I say it's not so! I like revising. All those written words to cover the blank page! All those sentences and punctuation marks to ward off bright white panic! Revising is often one of my favorite parts of the writing process.

Look at the word revision: Re-vision. That's not so scary. In fact, it's rather nice. I think of it as rewriting. No matter what you call it, editing is a creative act.

Yes, there are two different mojos that go into the writing process -- the creative and the critical -- but I think both can be creative acts. On one hand, you have the purely creative mojo, during which you should quiet your inner critic and analyst and let the words fly. On the other hand, there is a time for your editorial, critical eye to rove over your work. But I don't mean critical in a mean-spirited way. I mean critical in a creative way; use your thinking skills to make the work rock.

The only thing your critic and analyst should be doing is helping your creative mojo to better serve the work. If they start ranting or whispering about the value of the work -- about how good or bad it is -- rejigger their wiring until they understand that they're part of the creative process, not part of a panel of judges. This will quiet their cynicism and bitterness, and engage them in the process of making art, which is probably what they've secretly wanted.

Reshaping a work after the first pass of creation is part of the creative process. You move paragraphs around, change words, delete sentences and then sometimes put them back in. You play with the words as though you're shaping wet clay into something beautiful. Until the very end stage of proofreading, all editing is simply rewriting, or, writing again.

Don't be afraid to dig into your writing. Get your soft writer's hands dirty. Plunge them down into the loam of your words, all the way up to your wrists or elbows, however far you need to go. Stop fearing the rewriting process. It's all writing. Dig and move and sing in the pages of your creation. Own the editing process. Be brave enough to change things. You created it. Allow yourself to deconstruct it and put it together again in a new, more interesting way.

A word on a practical issue: Keep copies of vastly different revisions, in case you want to pull something from one version into another.

One word of caution: You could rewrite forever. Don't. Allow yourself to finish things and enjoy them.

I've completely revamped essays four or five times before I began to find their true shape and the story they were trying to tell. I loved the process of rewriting them, of unearthing something new and true, of discovering the art as I was making it.

I know some of you are still having a hard time believing me, but I invite you to try re-envisioning what the editing process can look like. During your next editing session, tell yourself that you're just writing again.

And let me know how it goes.

**Post your writing questions in the comments or send them to jennifer{at}thewordcellar{dot}com.

In The Word Cellar runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Read other posts in the series here.

Reader Comments (2)

this is good stuff. i'm in the spilling onto the page stage right now and am bookmarking this post to read again when i get to the editing stage...which i do struggle with!
June 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentervivienne
Hi Jenna! I really enjoyed this post- it was timely for me, too. Earlier this week I kept thinking "it's good to edit" when I was working on a piece of writing and working with some of my photos. I appreciate the encouragement to look at it all as creative work. thanks : )
June 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBeth H

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