Some time ago I posted about a battle I was having with writer’s block, which generated excellent forge-ahead advice from fellow toilers. Since eliminating the source of that obstruction, I have found myself in editorial purgatory: the anticlimactic and seemingly endless process of back/forthing that eventually (god willing) results in a finished product. After a long spell of distance from the-book-that-yet-remains-intangible, I recently turned in my page proofs, the final step in the long slow road to publication.
In my experience, looking over a final, formatted copy of anything before giving it the green light is two parts relief to one part nausea. This time was no different: gratitude that this small slice of hellven is finally off my cerebral plate, mixed with a mild horror at experiencing my own writing in a next-to-irrevocable form. It’s not that I’m not proud of the project, exactly: after so much time honing and revising, it’s the unchangeability that causes discomfort. That, and the out-of-body sensation of anticipating the hypothetical reader’s experience of the formatted whole. During planning and writing, this kind of intentional dissociation is an excellent way to maintain clarity of prose and purpose. After all is said and done, however, it becomes an agonizing exercise in self second-guessing.
Any product born of grueling personal effort and intended for consumption by others, whether an expectation-laden holiday dinner or a full-length monograph, can be hard for its creator to stomach. For the more perfectionist among us, the reasons are familiar: you never stop wanting to arrange the vestigial dessert forks. Unfortunately, the harder you strive for gastronomic or compositional perfection, the more likely you are to see only post-plating flaws. And, as my amazing late matriarch of a grandmother could have told you: the bigger the spread, the less chance you have of ever sitting down to eat.
edit, or abort?
Writing a book is as subject to extremes as culinary machinations of a similar scale: overdoing it results either in tryptophanic stupor or emotional breakdown. There are, of course, aspects of each undertaking that anyone engaged in pulling them off can actually enjoy – why else would they ever get done? Whether I am hovering over a keyboard or a cutting board, like most I am very much predisposed toward the getting started end of things: Imagining, researching, prepping, and producing are the easy part, and what follows, when the real work begins, is when I start to resent the fact that food/words exist.
In order to cure this heartburn, I am compelled to reflect on what it is about writing that I find most difficult: basically everything that comes after a first draft, which I find roughly as diverting as discovering the gizzard and giblets bag under a soggy dishtowel after cleaning up a mountain of soiled dishes. This is the first of a series of several posts that will (I hope) help me reconcile myself with the editing process, which, however painful, is what makes things worth reading.
I edit a lot of things, and am finishing a special issue of a journal right now. I just did the last read on an essay that’s been through three rounds of revision. It is so much tighter than it was when the author and I started. More than anything, it’s more assertive in its conclusions–I think having an editorial collaborator affirm her argument helped the author make it more concretely.
Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this process, especially anything you have to share about how to give/receive edits that encourage rather than foreclose work. That seems to be the real trick: How do we give feedback that is authentically generative and not just a total downer? As a writer, I’ve been on the receiving end of both kinds in the last couple of months. It really makes a difference.
emily, i have been pondering the commentary character end of things, and it is something i struggle with myself (both dishing and receiving). you have edited my work and i can say with confidence that your ability to provide feedback that results in not only minor tweaks but true refocusing toward more clarity if expression is dead on. which is a serious skill, which takes serious work to develop. in my experience, the most productive editing is generated from those with whom i already share some sort of relationship, which gives both parties a greater sense of safety to give/receive candid commentary and hold an implicit understanding that all suggestions, whether harsh-seeming or no, are for the good of the piece. it is hugely useful for me to talk edits through with someone, side by side or via screensharing, which creates the opportunity to challenge, expand, justify, and understand rather than having charged/barbed bits of critique simply hanging off the edge of pages for better or worse. anonymous or stranger edits are far more likely to frustrate or cut, in my mind, because you have no context for understanding the other party’s decisions or perspective. i think this last is key: editors have an experiential perspective that they bring to a piece, and it is hugely helpful for an author to at least have a sense of who the editor *is* in some real way to contextualize their feedback. blind peer review notwithstanding, i suppose, but in my mind relying only on the commentary of those who don’t know you/your work is a recipe for minor disaster. xo.