More on Writing (or: A Case Against Editing)



Yesterday’s article on writing received quite a bit of feedback. Much of it in the form of great advice and stories from other writers about how they write. Thank you all for your feedback; this site has a lot of great readers.

Iain Broome responded with his attitude towards writing and editing:

Writing is relatively easy. Writing well is extremely tough. Without that extra, uncompromising attention to detail, you’ll find yourself writing without Writing.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of editing my work. All work should be edited. I certainly spend far more time editing the articles I post to shawnblanc.net than I do writing them. I even edit my emails before hitting send.

Let me try to reiterate the two things I was primarily harping against in my article yesterday: (a) my tendency to avoid writing when it doesn’t feel like I’m producing my best work to date; and (b) my tendency to edit my work in real-time as I’m writing it.

What these two tendencies mean for me is that I often write each word, one at a time, slowly, so as to get just the right word. There are a lot of people who write like that, but I don’t know if it’s the best habit for me. But more on that at the end.

Another bit of feedback came from reader Rory Marinich via email saying there is no such thing as bad or good writing as it relates to voice — there is simply honest writing: “Honest subjects, honest voice, and that’s all writing can ever be.” Moreover, Rory said how writing effortlessly does not necessarily mean that a writer has “arrived”, because every writer has their own, unique pace.

Thanks, Rory, for the sage advice. And in fact, this is what I was trying to communicate in my final paragraph yesterday when I wrote:

But suppose one day I do arrive at some level of skill where the ink flows like honey and the prose like fine wine. I wonder if I’d even realize it. It may very well feel just like it does right now…

My point is that my perception of what it’s like to write compared to what I imagine it may be like to Write is most likely an arbitrary perception. The process of growing as a writer — or any other creative profession — is a slow and iterative process. Today feels just like yesterday, and tomorrow will feel like today. But if we were to skip back 2 years or skip ahead, then we would notice the difference.

It is easy to compare the difference in our finished products. I can read an article I wrote two years ago and compare it to an article I wrote last week and see that the quality and flow is higher. I can see that I have better grammar and use of vocabulary. But what I can’t see is my process for writing that article two years ago compared to my process of last week’s. To me, I remember them as being the same.

Lastly, is Randy Murray who was able to sum up my entire point in a single tweet: “give yourself permission to suck, then get better.”

This is exactly the struggle I have recently found myself in. I’ve noticed that I will not publish or even write something simply because it doesn’t feel absolutely incredible at the time I’m trying to write it. It’s likely that I’ve been hindered by this fear of doing crappy work for years — who knows — but I’ve only recently become aware of it.

And though I prefer not to post gushing articles like this (especially two in as many days), I know that many of you are writers, designers, podcasters, and more. And so my hope is that by me expressing my recent discoveries and shortcomings as a writer they will help you find ways that you can grow in your craft as well. Because that’s the whole point, right? To learn and to grow?

But that’s not all…

I want to come back to the two tendencies I’m trying to pull out of: (a) my tendency to avoid writing when it doesn’t feel like I’m producing my best work to date; and (b) my tendency to edit my work in real-time as I’m writing it.

I don’t know if these are the best habits for me to grow. Which is to say that I have questions about the amount of time I spend editing my work. Mostly, I’m curious about what would happen if I spent slightly less time editing my writing and then slightly more time creating and writing the next thing?

As I said, I am a big fan of editing. But what if I edited less and wrote more? Is it possible that I would slowly become a better writer in need of less editing? Ray Bradbury seems to think so: “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.”