Saturday, March 26, 2011

Write, Edit, Repeat

Vain Crocus (Central Park)
A long time ago I took a course on writing.  It was one of those two-day intensive workshops held over a weekend.  It was not my kind of writing at all.  The premise was that we should sit with pen to paper and write for 10, 20, sometimes 30 minutes.  No re-reading, no editing, just write and see what comes out and since this was a pen to paper exercise there was no place to hide an edit.  The underlying theme was that an “edit as I go” approach was wrong – according to our teacher, it made for bad writing.

Crocus on the Cusp (Central Park)
I remember feeling discouraged as we completed each round of speed writing.  What I was producing was trash – something that I would “ball up” and throw into the closest wastebasket if I had my druthers.  It was two days of sheer torture for me – someone who has never written a sentence that I couldn’t see how to say it better within 15 seconds of writing it.  Take that last sentence, I edited it two times while I was writing and I still think it needs editing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I learned to be a better writer these days.  It's not like the learning stopped when I finished school.  My first boss that would take a red pen to something I had labored over (using an IBM Selectric – remember those?) and tear it down.  He’d do a combination of rewriting sentences and telling me where I should do the rewriting.  It was a labor intensive process – after all I was writing on a typewriter!  So even if only one sentence was ripped to shreds – the whole thing needed to be reconstructed all over again – inviting even more self-editing than had been suggested.  And, all too often, what I wrote would need to be rewritten again.

Spring Bouquet (Central Park)
My next job was a bit better.  I had a computer -- what a great tool for a writer/editor.   I was better at writing too – all that ripping to shreds and rewriting had taught me a few tricks.  I know the direction to “fix it myself” helped the advice on writing to stick.  But, on this go around, I had a boss who was a bit of a control freak when it came to writing.  I could never seem to get it right.  He would sigh and send me off to fix things.  Let's just say it was not an easy relationship in those early days.  So I asked one of my colleagues – who seemed to be getting along swimmingly with him and whose writing was on par with mine – what her trick was.  She said, I check in with him after every paragraph – sometimes after a sentence or two.  I print it out, stop by, ask for his advice.  Of course, I tried that approach and it worked.  All of a sudden, I was a much better writer.  I had improved!  Really? 

I left that job as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

In my next job, my boss was a professor.  He liked to see whole document – progress there – but would edit each piece by putting pen to paper rather than on his computer.  I had gotten better but still there would be things that got ripped apart as he muttered, this is terrible, and wrote things like “fix”, “enhance”, “expand”, “move this here (with here being some ten pages later )”, and “nice start but needs a lot of work” across all sorts of documents.  His handwriting was terrible – a pinched up little scrawl.  It makes my eyes ache even thinking about it.  I knew I had arrived when he started to say things like, “you know you’re really good at this” rather than muttering “terrible”. 

I learned how to write better from those men who were my early bosses.  Along the way, I honed my ability to think strategically, to take apart information, and put it back together, to use the act of writing to drive the creative process.  I also learned that it is ok to “write, edit, repeatt”.

I learned that there is no crime in writing the way you were meant to write.  

Star Magnolia Frieze (Central Park)

1 comment:

  1. A nice positive sentiment for a disappointingly cold "spring" day. Thanks!