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The Tinkered Mind
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March 14th, 2020
We don’t often hear about great editors writing great novels. There are certainly great editors that have been fundamental to the creation of great works of literature, and certainly writers have been quick and eager to gain feedback from their fellow creators. But the span of skills here does not seem to be bi-directional. Being a great editor seems less likely to make you a great writer than being a great writer equips you to be a good editor.
The explanation may be quite simple here: you get good at what you do repeatedly. Writers become good writers and editors become good editors. But what goes overlooked in this statement is that writers are constantly editing as they produce.
When we speak or put word to page, we do not do so haphazardly, we do so with intention, and this intention is a filter of what is actually occurring in our conscious experience. This filter is a form of editing, and it’s even more pronounced as writers edit as they write. When a sentence is put down, and then a slightly better version is immediately hit upon and then put down to replace the first. This happens with sentences, with clauses and of course right down to individual words. How many sentences get hung up on single words as we search for the right one? This search is a process of editing. Usually we have an inferior word that first comes to mind that ‘sort of’ captures the sentiment that we are trying to trace. Perhaps we resort to a thesaurus, or perhaps it comes to us and we move on.
In this way, writers are exercising their abilities to edit on the fly. From here, it’s far less of a leap to edit something into a second draft than it is for an editor to employ a reversal of their skill set and generate a great piece of writing. This isn’t to say that editors can’t produce great pieces of writing. Indeed, it almost goes without saying that it’s a love of writing that usually gets an editor into the business in the first place. The distinction here is merely to point out which skills become stronger and why. The skill of writing and editing are complementary and so entwined that one cannot exist without the other. The point here is merely to highlight that the pursuit of one skill over the other is asymmetrical in its results.
From the beginning Tinkered Thinking has been an experiment in the art of the First Draft. Namely: is it possible to get better at writing something cohesive, and thoughtful in a limited amount of time? The reader will be the judge, and the writer will hedge bets by spending more time producing than fine-tuning.
The logic here extends from a straight-forward fact: you can’t edit a blank page. Something must first be produced, and it’s better to have a cannon to sift through when selecting something to polish than to be stuck with just one thing. 700 mico-essays later, this cannon is gaining some plump, and that gives Tinkered Thinking many more options to explore behind the scenes than would a smaller body of work.
Editing is essential, but in the age when written content is more and more free of charge, where should we spend out time? Shall we spend it editing something that may be read by just a few people? Or is time better spent practicing the art of the first draft?
Given time, a writer’s audience grows, even past the writer’s death, and as that audience grows, the likelihood that a fan emerges goes up and up. A writer might not produce the most polished work, but given time, it’s quite likely that someone will come along that enjoys the work so much that they take it upon themselves to edit it. We need only look to ancient works like Letters to Lucilius written by Seneca. That writing was undertaken with just an audience of one in mind, but through the centuries that audience has grown tremendously, and of course as editions of this writing have emerged, they have emerged edited. The word probably takes on a bit of a different meaning here, that being most writings of this category appear as selections, but the point remains: the writer is more likely to get better by writing.
All of this points to an easy and simple mandate for new writers: just write, and keep writing and don’t worry if it’s good or not. That’s a concern for later.
Postscript: It’s perhaps important to frame this topic with the fact that the writer here used to spend hundreds of hours editing single paragraphs and even single sentences. Think about that for a moment. Imagine spending an entire week, eight to twelve hours a day writing iterations of a single sentence in the hunt for a very specific effect.
There is a time and a place for everything, and where the writer is concerned, more of that time and space should be handed over to the act of writing. FYI: this episode was written start to finish in about 25 minutes. If that seems at all impressive, realize that after attempting to do this everyday for 700 days in a row, it’s merely commonplace, like eating a certain number of calories everyday, but in this case, I have more to show for it than a lovehandle.
This topic heavily relates to Episode 411: Quality of Quantity