Tag Archives: editing

Do You Know Your Priorities As a Writer?

For nearly six years, each week I’ve posted my best teaching on writing and editing for motivation and practical help.

IMG_6749I’ve taken a break or two, but the archive of several hundred posts prove it’s a priority for me–and it’s largely because I need to keep the wind in my sails and the breeze at my back.

I write to myself to remind myself of what I know and all I’m learning. It’s an intentional strategy though it didn’t start out that way.  I sensed I’d lose much of it if I didn’t keep a record.

And I felt that early on.

Using my own recent and previous experience makes the posts honest, inspirational and often embarrassing/humorous.

The past few weeks I’ve focused on some specific help to improve your approach to writing and the overall quality of your work. Today, I’m struck by how writing and editing are similar yet distinct and have very different objectives–or strategic priorities.

I heard this phrase at church a lot this weekend as about 25 of us met to discuss next steps in implementing our “strategic priorities.” If you’re like me, you’re a bit cynical about marketing speak, particularly in reference to God’s people. But it’s just a phrase. And it describes well what we always try to do when we communicate.

We each have priorities we’re promoting, whether we realize them or not. And if we can be more strategic about how we promote and inspire those priorities in others–be it a congregation or an audience of readers–that’s worth our time.

strategicprioritiesFor our church, identifying those required some hard work and discussion over several weekends with an outside consulting group. It ended up looking something like this. The process revealed so many surprises, just like my work with authors in identifying their vision and goals.

I found it cool how well this correlated to books, especially in seeking God’s inspiration throughout the process to define the plan of action. (I probably can’t claim it’s a coincidence that I was assigned the task of “communication coordinator” between the task forces.) While I didn’t like the phrase, I’ve long felt that identifying your “strategic objectives” should probably be a first step toward writing at a competitive level.

But here’s the idea I want to unpack over the next few weeks: Writing has a different strategic priority than editing. And from my experience with books that go through minimal editing and those that go through extensive editing, the importance of this distinction can’t be overstated.

Too often, new writers conflate writing and editing as one task or at least as closely related tasks, and miss the fundamental difference between them. Where writing is necessarily an exercise in listening exclusively to the inspiration in your own heart, the priority when editing is serving the reader. One focuses on what the writer feels, wants, and needs, the other focuses on what the reader feels, wants, and needs.

They aren’t 100% exclusive, and there’s overlap with both. But I believe being clear about these different strategic priorities helps tremendously when it comes to creating books that will stand the test of time.

Making such distinctions is critical all along the journey of writing and editing a book. So let’s explore this together in the coming weeks and be aware there’s more to this task than is visible at first glance.

daylilyAfter all, becoming aware of all that remains unseen is obviously one of God’s strategic objectives for our lives as sensitive observers and recorders of his wonders. Let’s commit to exploring the depth and breadth of his inspiration to us through the original creative Word.

For it’s all, “to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! (Eph. 3:20,21)

His power is at work within us–that is nothing short of amazing.

To him be the glory.

Beware in your prayer, above everything, of limiting God. Not only by unbelief, but by fancying that you know what he can do. Expect unexpected things, ‘above all that we ask or think’. Each time, before you intercede, be quiet first, and worship God in His glory. Think of what He can do, and how He delights to hear the prayers of His redeemed people. Think of your place and privilege in Christ, and expect great things!

Andrew Murray

 

For his higher purpose today in all He inspires,

Mick

Why Language Matters

 “Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.” 
– Rita Mae Brown

Writing is editing. You know that. You accept that.

But do you love it?forest path I’m serious. It’s easy to love writing, even when you don’t. But editing? Who loves that?   

And yet, if you plan to continue your career as a writer, it may be time to learn.

When people ask me about editing as a career, I often ask them this question: Do you like language? I think the editor is someone who has made that transition from appreciating language as a spectator, to not only enjoying it as a player, but now engaging the grand game of words as a coach, a manager, or even a referee.

Editing isn’t merely about grammar rules and knowing the parts of speech. It isn’t just how best to arrange the words for maximum impact. It’s all of those things, but it also involves a deeper understanding of human nature, the subtle preferences of readers and especially the particular interests and needs of the specific audience one is speaking to. Anyone can spout off rules about verb tense agreement or dangling modifiers, but the more advanced skill is knowing why these things matter–and why and when they don’t.

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“Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual.”
– Steven Pinker

Last week, I talked about how to overcome knee-jerk reactions to strong language as a way to employ words more powerfully. My firm conviction is that wielding language is a power–quite literally–and possibly, the greatest power we writers have. And as such, I believe we’ve got to start learning to risk speaking dangerously to reclaim and renew our listeners’ understanding of language. Frankly, even a cursory look around proves there’s no time for skirting this issue any longer.

So this week, I want to go straight to an idea that the invisible work of editing is arranging words to reveal readers to themselves.

A polished sentence, paragraph, chapter, or book conveys a clear message, an intentional revelation. And the way to having that effect is a proper edit which carves out truth, truth that heals readers’ misconceptions—about the world, themselves, God and others.

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Too many people, and I believe Christians especially, either don’t understand or don’t believe that. And I don’t know why. (My basic theory is that some folks think only God’s “original revelation” is the unaltered truth, and therefore editing is unnecessary and/or damaging. Can’t God inspire an idea and also grow and inspire us further through the editing process?)It’s true. Editing isn’t always easy—in fact, it rarely is. But how else do you expect to help others find themselves in a story so new yet so familiar, and experience that though somehow they forgot, they’ve always known this incredible revealed truth?
There is a language so pure it knows your very mind–it just is so rarely mastered.
Yes, if you are called to write, you are a lover of words. Yes, it is possible for you to seek and find this mastery of language. You know great books are not simply written. They’re rewritten. They’re edited. And edited again.
Like counselors, good editors use questions to guide the initial process. And then like surgeons, they find the phrases that bring out the best qualities and efficiently solve the confusion and dullness that plagues us. Good language isn’t flashy. It isn’t quick. It’s effective. It’s challenging. And it can be a struggle to uncover.
But it’s worth the effort. Because it’s what love requires.
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It’s always surprising and thrilling to watch a book take shape out of the clay. The frustration, the hard work, the struggle, it’s all eventually forgotten. But the beauty and power of a well-crafted story or well-stated idea remains.
Without working through all the considerations and possibilities, a book wouldn’t eventually find it’s shape. It wouldn’t have any value. Don’t be cowed by the work. Unstoppable ideas are not born, they’re fashioned into language by a commitment to speak with power and precision. Every important idea required effort to be said, some struggle to chisel it out of all the possible words, and a commitment that’s your birthright and heritage.
Why does language matter? Because when you speak your inspired words as the culmination of all you are, you demonstrate a freedom that others long to find. You show how language frees us by allowing us to name and define our world. And it’s a truth that requires discovering yourself.
So commit to the work of editing and working with your language and forget all else. When it’s hard and unclear and requiring so much time, remember this is where the book first shows you yourself. You’ll find what you initially intended to say, maybe what you thought you already said, and ultimately what you must give readers—it’s there in the love of this gift of language. It’s always there.
Love it and love the learning, the growing more aware and adept with your basic tools, and the appreciation of your reader’s intelligence. And show them that great respect of your commitment to say it all, best and clear and true.
Will you show readers themselves by speaking your words most effectively? For a writer, what could be more fulfilling than that?
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
For the higher purpose,
Mick

How to Be a Great Edit

 

I know it’ll come as a shock to some of you, but as much as the writing process is about staying in the work until you’ve said everything you need to say, the editing process is all about staying in the posture of listening.

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Once again, I’m stealing advice from Donald M. Murray’s excellent essay on the practice and teaching of writing, Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.

“How do you motivate your student…? First by shutting up.”

This is the part many writing teachers get wrong. They endlessly go on about the importance of editing and refining and how to do it and why it’s so vital (insert ironic laughter here). And, guilty. Even editors forget communication is a two-way street. And because we’re selfish human children who forget the world isn’t all about us and our needs, we could all use the reminder that no good book (or conversation) happens with just one person speaking.

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So obviously, getting the readers’ interests and questions into your work doesn’t happen automatically. You’ve got to be willing to quit pushing the river and listen for them. And that’s where a well-trained editor can help.

Then, once you’ve heard the readers’ concerns from a more objective voice, it’s time to get to work.

“You don’t learn a process by talking about it, but by doing it.”

I think for too long I saw my job as editor as pointing out the assignments and telling writers where to focus and what to do and how to say it, and according to Murray, “thereby cheat[ing] your student of the opportunity to learn the process of discovery we call writing.”

I’ve had to accept this is my own ego, my selfishness, just like it’s the writer’s ego and selfishness that cheats readers out of discovering the story instead of stepping back and being willing to learn to replace your instinctual habit to talk with quietness.

To trade speaking for listening, to consider your response, and become not the initiator or the motivator, but the reader, the recipient, this is how to be a great edit for your editor. The waiting can be agonizing, but an editor can’t help you learn the process if you won’t practice patience.

And I had to do it, so now you get to. :)

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“[R]espect the student, not for his product…but for the search for truth in which he is engaged.”

The editor listens for your voice, the truth you’re after, even if both are mere potentials yet.

But this is the work, and you can do much of it before you seek an outside editor. Focus not on what is but what it could be. Look deeper and let it change and grow if it can. Look for the potential for more inspired suggestions, more implied connections. This is what your editor will do, take what you’ve got and consider what with more time and insight, could be great.

You can get ahead of the game and make your editor really happy by spending time first considering the reader’s questions and expectations before turning it in.

The same way an editor does this for a writer, the writer can do this for a reader. It’s like good customer service: serve your editor by making your reader the center of your attention.

Ask, Will they feel served? Is everything clear and as precise as it can be to prevent trip-ups and confusion?

Do that and you can rest assured you’re going to be a GREAT edit.

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“Seeing into” is the vital work of the editing process, to recognize what the reader feels and needs next.

So practically, what does this look like? Of course, you won’t simply answer every question, thereby ruining the mystery and romance of the read. But you do want to make readers aware that you are aware of their questions by giving them a character to identify with who’s also confused, usually the hero.

If you practiced this perfectly, you could get away with a lot of mystery, create great tension and have a very engaging story. But with practice you’ll see where in the story you told too much, too many things readers should figure out on their own. And you’ll also see where you told too little, not explaining what’s needed to understand the basic plot or theme.

Again, if you did this before your editor had to, you’d have much better material to fine tune with him or her. Of course, I know it’s hard and laborious and you have wine to drink, but read through your work out loud (wait, one sec—where’s caps lock?) OUT LOUD! That way you will hear the problems your brain is skipping over. If you want to know if something sounds okay or your dialogue sounds authentic, have someone else read it to you in monotone—this removes the way you’re hearing it in your head and you’ll know if it translates.

I know–ugh! Hard work!

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But you can do it. You need to do it.

In nonfiction, when you share an illustration, remove things like “as this illustration makes clear…” It’s unneeded. You might as well say, “As this phrase makes clear, I didn’t edit.”

And overall, use fewer words to increase interest. This applies to fiction in dialogue and descriptions, and to nonfiction in explanations of things that the reader can and should be allowed to assume or connect themselves. Presume some reader familiarity and reduce your pandering, didacticism, extraneous, long-winded spelling-everything-out as much as possible. Spotting these things becomes easier with practice, but the key is always to focus on interest and how you can increase it.

Ask yourself, Does this [phrase, sentence, paragraph, chapter, illustration, character, story, example, sidebar, backstory, footnote, piece of dialogue] add to the reader’s interest or steal it by removing the tension, mystery or excitement of discovery?

With patient practice and attention to listening over sharing, you can be a great edit and reap the rich rewards of a careful, considered editing process.

And that should make everybody happy.

Choosing to Magnify the Light

It’s true now as it’s been true so often before.

I have to back up. I’m trying too hard.

How do I let go, not try so hard? Do I have to give up? Walk away?

Maybe come back later when I’m not so focused on the result and can remember to enjoy the process. I can get so results-oriented, so myopic. Progress is all I want.

As if writing or any art was ever all about the end product.

I get up and head to the kitchen for more coffee. It’s difficult to create good work. Refinement doesn’t just happen. Hard work is required to get out what you imagine. And yet, letting go and not trying so hard is ironically the only way to allow yourself to be surprised by inspiration. Our desire for art, for life, for love must be strong. We must choose for it over all else we could be doing. But it can’t be forced.

tadpoles“Do you really know freedom is this way?” I asked a client last week.

Her humble admission that she didn’t really know, it reminded me how I didn’t believe I could write the most difficult chapter in my book. Well, maybe it wasn’t the most difficult, but it’s definitely the one that gave me the most trouble. I wrote it acting on faith. I didn’t really believe I’d get it out, or that it was really a path to freedom.

But expressing that and facing the fear, the truth I’ve kept hidden inside, I didn’t realize it was hidden all this time. It came from a dark place, a wound I’ve carried and likely inflicted on others for years—it felt so good to get it out. I’d carried it, afraid of never getting it out, and now it’s gone. It’s been said. Maybe not perfectly, and maybe it won’t be understood by everyone. But it’s out there now, and no one can take that away.

It’s not ready to be shared, but I’ve got time. And I’m motivated now because I feel free now that it’s out. I had to work hard to commit to going there and saying it. But I also had to let go and not force it. There was something in being willing to go into the dark cave simply trusting it could be a tunnel. But not trying to make it happen.

I’m still thinking about this as I head back to my office with my refill. I tend to believe I can control a lot. But actually, I control very little. And sometimes, the only thing I think I do control is how I see the work–either as drudgery toward a goal or as a beautiful, developing process.

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Am I being trained in how to see?

This world often feels much too big to do much about. And I’m so small–what could it possibly matter if I share my pain in words or not? When life’s pain feels big, bigger than us, bigger even than God and the whole world, I can feel hopeless and want to crash through buildings and make something change. Other times I decide to hide.

Can I learn to see that the only things I control are my responses? Can I be the master of my emotional universe, knowing I’m weak and unworthy of love and yet still in possession of God’s infinite protection and guidance?

Either both are true or neither is true. And without His rebalancing love, I tend to become either like the entitled older brother or the worthless younger one.

The key for both of them is compassion, but in their blindness, both believe it’s up to them. Pain and fear steal my senses and make me think it’s foolish to believe God could help/save/fix/love/meet/heal/train/know/use me through this calling of writing.

It’s this sucking hole inside, the one I know so well and spurs me on–and sure, God will use it because he takes what he can get, but I can’t expect this to be my deeper motivation. My healing is not his highest purpose. But he knows I need it if I’m ever going to get to what he’s really after. As often as I realize again what that is, I just as often forget it. The demand for love is insatiable.

If only I could remember what’s beyond my own gnawing need…

Ah, but I can! I have seen over the wall of my pain. I’ve seen what’s over there toward the light. And it’s (so far) unspeakably beautiful. Even though I didn’t quite believe it was there this last time I set out to write, I wrote my way out of the cave and I stayed and listened and forgot to try to control it. And that’s when I found freedom.

Maybe the simple fact is that in the darkness, we must choose to magnify the light in order to see.

Maybe all we can do, our only job, is to decide to believe. Maybe our eyes can’t easily see the light that God has been slowly revealing all along our path until we learn to magnify it. That is, to delight in his perfect control.

If pain has made us afraid and blind in our caves, maybe we simply have to be willing to let go and choose to magnify the light we have.

Bravery begets bravery. Maybe we just have to let God lead, to show up and let him try to reach us beyond our own blinding needs. When I let go of trying to fix myself, then I’m filled by him and I see others’ needs more clearly and even how he might want to fill them.

Is this why the only way out of a controlling dark life is faith, is the only way we are enabled to choose other than what our deficits demand?

This answer, even if only a partial one and still open to interpretation and full of mystery and ambiguity, it feels like just enough to remind me next time I forget and need encouragement. What matters is that I go into the dark, invite him, and choose to magnify the light.

That I can choose today. Because that is the choice I have been given.

-M

 

Why editing isn’t just the how but the what  

Whenever I work with new authors, they’re eager and excited. And almost always they want to focus on how they did—whether the structure they used works and how well it “flows.”

But what I find almost 100% of the time is that first, they need help hearing what they said. And without exception, it’s surprising to them to realize what I’m hearing.

We think editing is a matter of mechanics. What we find is, it’s mostly about relevance and authenticity.

More than structure, we need to hear how we sound beyond our own heads.

Picture a singer too focused on all the other instruments to hear what his voice is contributing. Picture a painter thinking only of a person’s shape without perspective and the play of shadow and light on skin.

Language is magic. We don’t control it without patient work. And even then…

Are you open to hearing what you haven’t yet heard?

How else would we expect to learn to affect others with what’s in our minds and hearts that hasn’t yet been said?