Monday, August 01, 2011

How To Make Bad Writing Good Writing in a Good Way (Or: A Rant About the Editing Process)

Rant time. I did mention there might be a few of those. And while we're on awkward openings, I'm falling into the habit of sub-titling my posts. I shall valiantly attempt to stop this from happening as soon as possible.

But it does segue nicely (uh oh) into a topic that's been bouncing around my head only slightly longer than guilt about not posting more frequently:

It's kind of fun--and it can make you sound way more intelligent than you actually are--to talk at length about the editing process like it's some kind of magic bullet. Like you can go from jot notes to polished product with a five (try 250) step plan. Partly it's been banging around in my head because I've spent a large part of my summer in the vicinty of another writer going through this process and all its assorted deadline angst, and partly it was motivated by a question posed to me about what to do with a really bad piece of writing.

Now, I should point out by way of disclaimer that I am pretty well one of the least-qualified people to actually give advice about mentorship. I'm an unpublished amateur author, 21, and just generally inexperienced. But whether my advice was at all helpful or not isn't the point. It keeps happening, so I have to deal with it. It got me thinking about editing.

I like editing immensely. It kind of makes me want to die a slow and painful death sometimes, and it makes me more fully appreciate the Vogon sensibility, but it is productive. And there's something mildly entertaining about finding out everything you wrote in chapters 3-7 contradicts a key plot element in chapter 19. It is, in a word, valuable.

I was taught the editing process very thoroughly in grade eleven--something I am incredibly grateful for, since it helped develop my masochistic appreciation for it. For 25 high school students, it had to be pretty basic: write down the mistakes you find on a sheet. Keep the sheet. That, though, led to analysis and reflection and eventually, changes for the better. And that's all you can ask for.

The point I am eventually free-writing (another nice, intellectual term for "ramble") my way to is a question: is the editing process absolute? Can it, say, take something terrible and make it good?

I'm inclined to believe that it can't. You can't take this blog post and make it into an academically-publishable essay. One thing can't become another entirely--thank the ineffable reader for that. Partly that's because editing is subjective and in its own way, creative, too. You can't take slop and make it gold (though there are a few philosophy professors who study alchemy who might be close to that than I), but you can help people.

There's a difference here, of course, between professional editors employed by publishing houses where a lot of money trades hands and people happening across someone's first few tries at creation. I'm writing this to those people. To the people who won't write the books on editing and won't read the ones that are written.

To edit well, and to really enjoy it, I think, you have to see the connections in whatever you're dealing with. Which means you have to appreciate the goal, the tone and the style of what you're working with. A writing workshop instructor I had who was far more qualified to discuss this than I am called this the "secret web of a story," a term which I think is absolutely brilliant, not only because a good piece of writing (fiction or not) should be a web of background details and information, but also because that web is inherently secret, both to the editor and the reader, and maybe to the author, too. In order to edit effectively, you have to know what is affected by everything else.

Take my summer of 2010, which involved working on a long-term project that was deemed to be too whingy, too negative and boring. Okay, fine, we all love reader feedback, don't we? But how to address this problem? The preferred solution of the (for lack of a better word) editors was to hack out the "depressing" bits and adjust the plot in the most convenient way possible. Sure, we had a story at the end, but it didn't make sense, didn't have a narrative arc, and was probably worse than what we'd started with (at least in my opinion). When you cut that web apart and glue its ends in different places, don't be surprised if you get a sticky, hairy ball that you can't ever seem to get entirely off your hands/clothing.

But if writers edited their own work, the world would be short of a lot of great writing, so there has to be a middle-ground here somewhere. That middle-ground has to involve both technical lingo from people who know stuff and are qualified (the narrative arc, for instance) and also the secret vision of the writer--a vision no one else has. That compromise is maybe just slightly easier to achieve than the resolution to the U.S. debt ceiling crisis. Throw in young writers such as myself and my peers who sometimes need a little help and it can get real difficult, even without the Tea Party and a lot of bankers.

So how to go about mentoring someone who needs a little work? Who needs help establishing that process? I learned a lot about that last year managing contributors for the sports section of the Dalhousie Gazette. The big thing I learned--and maybe the most important thing I could learn--was that everyone goes about it slightly differently. There is no right or wrong answer exactly. It's an exercise: a technical exercise and a creative exercise. Ignore one or the other and you're end result won't be good. Whingy or non-sensical, I guess. You get people who can really write but who can't focus (that's me, as you can probably tell from this blog), and you get people who need to take a step beyond the practical. It's your job as an editor/mentor to get them there. I believe everyone can. If you don't, I'd venture you need to find something else to do with your time. Everyone has a voice and everyone's is slightly different, and thus, valuable. When I try to help other writers like me, I do it because I want to hear more voices.

The catch is that you have to hear your own voice, too, and respect it. There's a lot of pride involved in editing from all parties. One of the clich├ęs that gets thrown around a lot by people who have no idea what they're talking about is "don't be afraid to kill your babies." Babies referring to ideas, characters, plots, stories, events, grammatical free-wheelies, style over substance, etc. There's some truth to it, but it is, like much editing advice, a simple answer to a very complicated problem, and usually an answer spewed out by overconfident editors to writers who do not want to listen. Both of these parties are right about the problem and no resolution for the better is ever going to be reached by respecting the "babies" or the fact that they don't work in their current form.

We don't think in complete, polished sentences, so we have to work to create them. Throwing away every rough patch because it was a creative move that didn't come off would be a very bad idea. If every film has no risks, well, look around you. If every attacking play left too many holes in defense we'd never have any goals. You need time and trust.

I had the pleasure of working with a number of high-school writers during that aforementioned project and I learned very quickly to trust them. I trusted them as people, but I trusted their pride in their own work more. No-one wants to look bad. Every idea that comes out is made with good intent. Not all are good, but most have some kernel of usefulness, and can be nurtured. Nobody writes Michael Ondaatje's or Margaret Atwood's novels on first draft.

But even that little altruism at the end of my last paragraph is simplistic: nobody writes like Ondaatje or Atwood because they're unique. You have to trust people to find their own way, too, and become unique in their own right. I find there are a lot of people who try very hard to write like the big-league players and I've found these people the hardest to give feedback for in workshops and such. Not because they're writing is bad, but because it's really, really hard to find out what they're trying to do with their idea (again, fiction or article or whatever). Too often, people are too afraid to actually create their own web. They're too afraid to make their own idea or their own style. And they're often too afraid to share. That's a product of bad editing (and also a lack of self-confidence) and bad feedback. Tearing apart work by young or inexperienced writers--and I include myself solidly in that group--can do a lot of damage in a multitude of ways. The writers who worked with me through 2010 know all about that damage.

And that's the failing of easy, formulaic editing. We do everyone a disservice when we don't take time. I have plenty of experience in that as a staff editor at a student paper. Time is something nobody has and articles get a once-over and then go to print. The writer looks bad, the paper looks bad, and the editor looks bad. And everyone loses a little bit of confidence in themselves, and tries a little too hard next time. I've done that myself many times: you do a bad article on a tight deadline so next time you over-write your next one.  Time isn't always available, of course, but sometimes even something as small as a re-read can reveal the intent behind what came off as whingy and depressing, but maybe wasn't intended to be.

Writing down a list of mistakes and things to correct is a great way to self-edit when you're confident of your own work, and when you know what's behind your story, linking it all together, making the meaning work, so to speak. But it's not a great way to mentor a writer. Finding some positives goes without saying--that's man-management--but you have to look a little deeper than that. You have try to grasp the style and let the creator grow into the work. Some things can be dealt with on fifth draft as opposed to first draft. Length is one of those things. Tone can be, too. And when you let the story grow through the process--i.e., you don't kill the babies, you let them mature into human beings; nobody likes infanticide--you get a better story and a clear and confident new voice. Hopefully.

Though harder in fiction, starting small is a good idea, too. Speaking for myself, I hate being forced to make a story into one specific medium before that decision can really be made. From the perspective of an essay or an article, it can come from the assignment and the expectations. Provide feedback. Provide goals for next time, things to do better. And most important, explain why. Technical stuff doesn't have to be learned by rote. You learn not to put weather in the lead by putting weather in the lead, then reading your story in the paper and realizing how unbelievably stupid it sounds as you slowly realize that eight other people have also written weather leads in this issue. When you find your own mistakes, it sinks in so much better than someone pointing them out to you--thus the beauty of the blank editing checklists I was given in grade eleven. There's something empowering--at least to me--about having a sheet with ten blank slots daring me to fill them. That somehow makes me want to go and find something. To be better. And whether the writer fills in two slots or 35, it's worth it.

There is no right way or wrong way to edit someone else's or your own work. A lot of it comes down to respect and trust--for the editor, for the writer, for yourself.

I really hope this "ramble" helped someone, because it took an hour away from the immensely pleasurable (and yet inherently frustrating) experience of getting well and truly stuck in the massive web of my current project that's still spinning out of my head every night. And there-in is the contradiction. Editing is like creating: pleasurable when it works and for its end product, but a massive struggle in the middle.

Keep trying and good luck. Remember to have fun along the way. There's nothing like reading something, whether it's a first-time writer or Margaret Atwood. Comments on your own experience with contradictions are welcome.

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