Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Janitorial Duties

There are a number of strategies writers adopt when they edit their work. There are some that will keep a document active for as long as it takes. Years, even decades will go by from the completion of the first draft to the final edit, while the writer will meticulously correct, restructure, and position every letter with the diligence and precision of a neurosurgeon. I respect this strategy, but it’s not for me, mostly because it requires a number of attributes I lack.

There’s the first-and-out strategy. I’ve known a couple of people who truly believe that the first draft is the most honest, that the raw text contains the purest form of the narrative and that’s what should be published, and good for them. Such people did not grow up required to take regular speech therapy sessions. I can’t legally describe what I would do for the ability to pass what I want to say through a trusted set of eyes before it shot out of my mouth. Any clever thing I’ve said – probably EVERY clever thing – was a result of me holding back a statement that crucial half second to get just a little bit closer to truth. Thoughts are pure and beautiful things, but the language used to express those thoughts inevitably fails to convey their whole essence. I firmly believe the best anyone can do is know their languages flaws well enough to occasionally use them to their advantage.

Most people fall in the middle. They push the first draft out, ignoring the errors they find as they type, then go back and start cleaning it up enough that they can admit to another person they wrote it. Then those people tell the writer what they missed. Revise and review. The sequence and amount of time can vary endlessly, but it stops when the writer’s sick of looking at the thing. Most say “when the document is as clean as it can be before submission”, but there’s not one user of this strategy that hasn’t felt queasy at the thought of reviewing their manuscript another time.

There’s a lot that happens during the editing process that can determine how long it last, but ultimately it comes down to the deadline. How clean can a writer get their manuscript before someone with a checkbook gets bored waiting for it? Setting one’s own deadlines is a great disciplinary measure; a writer gets used to having to focus, to the best job in the fastest time, and develops skill as a result. Of course, writers have their own checkbooks. Often stained with red.

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