The Human Condition:

Writing as a Nonlinear Exercise – February 15, 2015

Ocean wave

Questions have been floating around among my Facebook writing friends as to whether it’s best to write for flow or to write to edit, and whether the first, second, third, or later drafts are the most valuable and where the writer should do his or her most valuable work. In this discussion, “write for flow” means to sit down and bang out the story as it comes, ignoring the niceties of word choice, spelling, and grammar; just let it flow and fix it up later. On the other hand, “write to edit” means concerning oneself with all these details on the first draft, letting one’s internal “editor voice” determine the next word or keystroke; move slowly and get it right the first time.

I have to say I’m in the camp of the “write to edit” people—but then, I’m a special case. My first three jobs out of college as an English major with an honors degree were as a book editor, first for a university press, then at a trade book house specializing in railroad histories and Californiana, and finally as a technical editor with an engineering and construction company preparing reports and proposals. I wanted to write novels, too, and I wrote one whole manuscript during that time by getting up at four o’clock in the morning, staring at the wall until the blood came, and then pushing down typewriter keys. But my day job was sitting in a chair for eight hours at a stretch—except when I got up to check the dictionary or another reference source—going over the lines of other people’s writing with a blue pencil.

An editor’s function is to be responsible—morally, legally, economically, and spiritually—for the quality of another person’s writing. The copy editor reads, understands, and evaluates every word, grammatical structure, punctuation mark, sentence construction, paragraph flow, and checkable fact. The copy editor—which is what I was—is not so much concerned with the author’s viewpoint, political stance, the manuscript’s narrative arc, or its overall marketability,1 but he or she does care that every sentence meets the canons of appropriate literary quality and that every fact stands up to external scrutiny.2 A professional copy editor will give the same good service to an author who’s a raving Nazi, a convinced Communist, or an ecstatic Evangelical.3 The editor’s first loyalty is to the text and its potential readers.

The editor functions simultaneously as the author’s “eyes behind,” picking up on and correcting those grammatical, puctuational, and factual errors and infelicities that the author may have overlooked, and as the “fresh eyes” of the first reader, exploring the text in all its possible dimensions, misinterpretations, and petty confusions. The editor corrects the obvious mistakes and asks the obvious questions that would bother the “interested and informed general reader.”

Spend eight hours a day doing all that for about ten years, and it changes you. For one thing, you know most of The Chicago Manual of Style—the bible of the publishing industry—by heart, and you can deal with issues of punctuation, capitalization, numbers, word treatment, citation, and all the other ways of making a piece of text look, read, and “feel” right simply by reflex twitches of your internal blue pencil. You also have years of experience seeing a word that does not quite fit the context, tone, or intent of a passage and instantly thinking of at least three alternates or variants. And you can untangle a confused sentence structure in your head faster than a rat can run a maze.

So … is my “editor voice” at work on the first draft? Oh, you bet! In fact, the little machine or piece of circuitry inside my brain that spits out words in order to follow the flow of my thoughts has been inoculated by the Chicago Manual virus and filters for the look and feel of good text. I tend to write in complete sentences and punctuate, capitalize, and check grammar and spelling along the way. After a lifetime of putting words into print, it’s just not that hard anymore.

The personal computer has also made this process fantastically easier. I wrote my first novel at the age of sixteen4 by doing the first draft longhand on a white, lined tablet, then typing the second draft on my grandfather’s ancient Underwood using two sheets of bond with a piece of carbon paper between them, because I had heard that authors always make two copies. I also used an erasure shield, because I was learning to type at the same time and wanted that second draft to be perfect. This experience—write it out, then type it up—taught me to be precise and economical with words and thoughts, because typing was slow and painful for me, especially working with all that carbon paper; so I learned to edit, pare down, abridge, and abbreviate as I turned my handwriting into typescript.

The computer and word processor have freed writers from the linearity of handwriting or typing out line after line as they move down the page. Instead, my writing process has become more like a wave front, rolling forward in time and space, coming up from behind the crest, and continuously realigning words with thoughts. If I find myself getting tangled up in a sentence, I can move the clauses around with click-and-drag, invert passive-voice sentence structures to active, and eliminate lazy mental constructions like “there is a [subject] that [verb] …” almost as fast as I can type. My days as a copy editor make it impossible for me to just spit out a lousy first draft and hope to improve it later.

But all of this has to do with only the words and how they will appear on the page. A deeper level of the brain controls my writing talent, and that mimics the role of the structural or story editor. If the character viewpoint in a scene, my slant on the subject matter in an article, or my understanding of the action in the novel is wrong, then my internal story editor shuts down the writing process. I know it will take more work trying to unthink, unravel, and undo the damage that a wrongheaded approach to the story or article will create in my mind than simply waiting and getting it right the first time. If I sit down at the keyboard and nothing comes—the word-generating circuitry goes strangely inert—I know it’s because I haven’t yet worked out some crucial part of the plot or answered some critical question about the character and his or her actions or intentions.5 Of course, I might also simply have been lazy and not bothered to prepare my mind, give thought ahead of time to plot, character, or action, or focused on my need for a starting point—the image, sense impression, or piece of action that I call the “downbeat.”6

My writing style allows for some vagaries, of course. I can leave the name of a minor character in unsettled form, insert a placeholder for a bit of nonstructural description, and add “[CK]” for “Check” to a fact that I’ll want to clear up later. My internal story editor knows these details will be flagged and get fixed in a later read-through. For everything else, however, I keep a window with the Merriam-Webster Unabridged open on my desktop alongside the word-processor, and I keep a second browser window open to check facts or word treatments on the fly through a search engine like Google. But my first draft is usually about ninety percent of what I want the story to be.

My approach—the wave form method of writing—is chaotic, but it’s a controlled and goal-oriented sort of chaos. I think of my writing as a kind of blacksmithing: hammer on each word, sentence, paragraph here, hammer on it there, see the hot metal become straight and smooth, and make it strong through continuous testing.

As to whether the first, second, or nth draft is the best, I really don’t do drafts anymore—not in the sense of putting aside the text that was written in the last sit-down, reimagining and rewriting the scene, and hoping to improve it by a second writing. Individual drafts have been replaced in my process by spaced read-throughs of the developing text. Usually, I do one review immediately, at the end of the writing session, to catch any obvious errors. Another will come the following morning, before starting on the next scene or chapter. Then I will read through a chapter or section a few days after finishing it, when it’s had a chance to cool off in my mind and show its flaws. And I will give the whole book a final read-through before letting anyone else see it. Is that four drafts or five? And does it matter? I keep hammering on the text until it becomes bright and hard, like a good piece of steel. I don’t move on to the next chapter or section until I know that the structure I’ve already built is solid and will bear weight.

And if the steel doesn’t ring at all? Then I know I have to discard the entire story line, let my head cool off, let the pools of my subconscious become dark again, and think the story out with a fresh perspective. But that’s not another draft. It’s more like doing an entirely different book!

1. That’s the job of the acquisitions editor at a publishing house, who deals with the manuscript’s content, structure, and fitness for the house’s established distribution channels and readership. For an overview of the editing process and types of editors, among much else, see Between the Sheets: An Intimate Exchange About Writing, Editing, and Publishing, which captures an email exchange I had with an old colleague and first-time author, Kate Campbell.

2. The editor is not concerned with any kind of “universal truth.” The editor does not ponder metaphysical or philosophical mysteries. But if the author writes that the American Civil War started in 1860, or that Alfred Einstein died in 1954, then the editor gets curious, springs out of his or her chair, and looks up to confirm or correct the matter. To fill this role adequately, an editor needs the kind of ready-reserve knowledge base that plays well on Jeopardy.
       If there is any doubt or question about a fact or a sentence’s meaning, the editor pencils a polite note to the author, asking for his or her consideration and correction at the time of manuscript review. This is the main reason that Post-it® notes were invented.

3. As I’ve sometimes said, “I don’t care if I’m editing the Devil’s own book. At least he’s going to get the spelling and grammar right.”

4. Don’t ask. It was a wretched space opera about an interstellar empire and an academic-turned-revolutionary—a character based somewhat loosely on Leon Trotsky—who managed to overthrow it. That and the next two and a half novels I wrote were just a waste of black marks on paper. Every writer has to throw away three books before he or she produces one that is worth even showing to another pair of human eyes, let alone an agent or publishing house. If you’re reading someone’s “first novel,” know that it’s actually their third or fourth attempt. Every overnight success is about ten years in the making.

5. See Working with the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.

6. See Getting Into the Zone from February 2, 2014.