Write to Done: Lessons on Editing

Editing Picture

“Perfect is the enemy of good.” – Voltaire

One of the goals I set for myself as part of my 52 Weeks Challenge for trying new things was to submit an essay to a literary journal. I decided to submit an excerpt from my work-in-progress, a memoir on my Alzheimer’s caregiving journey with Granny. That required cutting a 9,000-word chapter down to 6,000 words – without losing my voice and the substance of the work. This was no easy task, because a writer’s first instinct is to think that everything you’ve written is important. Not to mention that in the quest for perfection, you can keep editing forever and never submit your piece or complete it. After much tinkering, I finally submitted my first essay to a literary journal. Although I was anxious about the quality of the finished product or whether it was “good enough,” I was proud that I had actually completed and submitted the essay. I had worked hard and it reflected my truth. I then looked ahead to the painful process of writing and editing future essays and my memoir. Editing my essay taught me a few lessons about the benefits of editing:

  1. Editing brings clarity to your writing. If your goal is to have your work published by others, you will have to exercise some restraint – both in word count and substance. This will require you to determine what really needs to be included in your work, and what can be trimmed. You will have to figure out what the purpose of your work is, and remove portions that don’t align with that purpose. You will also be required to read your work with a critical eye, and remove extraneous words and details. You’ll find yourself wondering, Do I really need to include a minute-by-minute account of an event, or will a summary suffice? Is there a simpler or less verbose way to say something? Do I really need to include every single anecdote, or can I just use the most salient ones? After editing your work, you will end up with a tighter, clearer and improved version of your original work.
  2. Editing makes your writing more organized. Perhaps because I am an attorney, I tend to organize my professional writing and speeches as if I am presenting a legal argument. I even construct my cover letters in this way, and once got a job interview on the strength of my cover letter alone when my resume failed to upload. I start with a premise, and I use each subsequent point as evidence to prove the premise. Although I use this approach in my business writing, I sometimes forget to use it in my creative writing. Such a methodical way of writing requires that you be very clear about the purpose of your writing, so that you can sufficiently advance it. While editing, this was often hard because I was sometimes unclear about my purpose. When in doubt, I wrote what I thought my purpose was and then outlined anecdotes and reflections to support that purpose. Ultimately, I gained clarity and my writing evolved from a (somewhat) meandering free-verse of thoughts to an organized essay (well, that was at least my intent).
  3. Editing improves your grammar and writing. I remember the day my 8th -grade English teacher covered grammar. I made sure to be absent that day. Since then, I’ve relied on Microsoft’s spellcheck and become a card carrying, dues paying member of the “if it sounds right, then it must be right” school of grammar. But, sometimes that’s not good enough. During the editing process, I dusted off an old copy of my Strunk & White grammar Bible. Who knew there were so many rules about when and where you can use a comma. Teachers, copy writers and editors have my deepest sympathies.
  4. Editing provides the necessary momentum to move your work forward. Editing and completing your work makes you optimistic about what’s possible and what you’re capable of accomplishing. It motivates you to look for additional writing opportunities and stirs up new writing ideas. Editing gets the ball rolling, rather than allowing you to become stagnate and wallow in self-doubt about your work (and worth).
  5. Editing makes you realize your story is already written. During a conversation with a friend about my work-in-progress, I kept telling her that I needed to edit it and make it perfect before I could say I was done with the first draft. “Your story is already written. It’s your story, so how can it not be perfect?” she responded. “Yea, yea,” I answered. I heard her, but I didn’t really believer her – until I started reviewing previous blog posts I had written. And then it was clear. My story is already written. I’ve been writing, blogging, journaling, and writing book notes for the last seven years. My story is already written. I need to get on with it already!When you’re editing, remember that you’ve already done the hard part. You’ve already put words to paper and written your story. Trust your work and the process, and get on with it already!
  6. Perfection is the enemy of done. Right after graduating from law school, I clerked for a judge. On one particular occasion, I needed to review court records and write a legal memo to my judge recommending a course of action on a particular case. Although she gave me a deadline by which to complete the memo, I missed it. I was so focused on writing the perfect memo, that I watched the deadline fly right by me. “If I had been a paying client and you had to submit that memo to court, you would have been sued for malpractice,” she told me in her dry, “you-done-f—-d-up” tone of voice. When I apologized, she replied, “Don’t be sorry. Just don’t let it happen again.” Ooops. My bad. My struggle to be done continues. I am notorious for starting creative projects, talking about them ad nauseum, outlining them, reading books and articles on writing, and then never completing them. And I could edit my work until Jesus cracks the sky. But, that’s not how things get done. There’s always room for improvement. At some point, however, you must bite the bullet and resolve to say “Done!” Deciding to be done with a project is scary, because it will mean you have no more excuses. Writing and being done takes courage. Being done means you will finally have to share your words and feelings with the world. That you will have to be vulnerable, bearing your soul and sharing inglorious moments often hidden in journals or whispered to therapists and best friends. You will have to face other people’s opinions and criticism. But, it also means that you will have the chance to share your lessons, triumphs, and gifts with the world. Isn’t that the whole point of this writing thing? Someone needs to read your story. Be done.

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