Chris Martin Writes is one of the many WordPress blogs I follow. Yesterday he wrote about editing one’s work, and how it’s not one of his favourite things to do. He also wrote about some tools he uses, successfully, to help him make it a more enjoyable process.
I, on the other hand, love it. In fact, I have to perfect as I go. Every couple of paragraphs I have to stop, re-read, tweak, polish, change, edit; otherwise I can’t go on. Every writer I’ve ever met, or worked with, has his or her own style. I had a writer, who once worked for me, who was all about stream of consciousness. He just had to get it all out and down on paper, without worrying about spelling, grammar, punctuation, flow or anything else. He knew it would be all right, in the end.
He’d always give me his first draft to look over. He wanted to know if he was on the right track, before he invested a whole lot more time and effort. Fair enough, I suppose. But as much as I liked him, and his work, every time I’d see him headed for my office, with sheets of paper in his hand, I’d groan. Because I’d have to read and re-read and re-read his work just to make enough sense of it — before I could figure out if it answered the brief, or not. And, as a result, for the first fifteen or twenty minutes I’d spend all my time correcting the errors, instead of evaluating the work.
It’s just the way I am. I get distracted by the imperfections. I can only read objectively and give thoughtful feedback when I’m looking at a really good draft. Even when it’s my own work. I love perfecting work, whether it’s mine or another writer’s.
But I’m lucky.
Very, very early in my career, when I was just starting out, I was given an opportunity to learn a wonderful lesson. One that has stayed with me, to this day. I was doing advertising and PR in the fashion industry. My hero, at the time, was the fashion editor of one of Montreal’s daily newspapers. Her name was Iona Monahan, and she was a legend.
We’d worked together, very briefly, for a fashion trade magazine; and I loved every second of it. Even the day she told me that I couldn’t use a headline I’d written for an ad. Unbeknownst to me, she’d come up with the same headline, for an editorial spread. And she was pulling rank. I took it as a challenge. Surely I was capable of coming up with another headline that was just as good (which I did). I also took it as a compliment, because I’d had the same idea as this brilliant woman I worshipped.
We both moved on around the same time. As it turned out, she and I both worked with the same French writer/translator. In fact, it was Iona who introduced us, in the first place.
One day my phone rang, and it was Iona. She was working on a special supplement for the newspaper. When she had mentioned she needed someone to write a piece on hair and another on make-up, Denise (french writer) had suggested me. I was beside myself! And terrified. This was a big opportunity; and to be selected by Iona for anything was a very big deal.
She told me what she wanted, without giving me a word count. And because I was a total novice, I never thought to ask.
Never have I worked harder on any assignment, in my life. I had a two-week deadline. And for the first two days, I called every individual, and company, involved in both the hair and make-up industries. I ended up with enough samples of products to open a store, which meant that I gave the best stocking stuffers that Christmas.
Anyway, I slaved. In those days I smoked and I worked around the clock, smoking myself into oblivion and drinking coffee. Day, after day. No computers then, and while I could have used a typewriter, I preferred to write everything out in longhand. Crazy me. I went through pads and pads of paper, because every few sentences I started over. Crumpled balls of paper littered my apartment floor. I had blisters on my fingers from the pen rubbing the same place over and over.
Finally I was satisfied. Two days ahead of my deadline. I sent Iona my drafts. And held my breath.
When she called, the first words out of her mouth, were: “Fransi, I have received your articles. If I were to use these, as they are now, there would be no pages left for anything else. They need to be cut by more than fifty percent. I will give you the research credit, and do it myself; or you can do it and get the writer’s credit. And, by the way, I love the research you did and want you to find a way to keep all of that information in the pieces.”
There was no way I was going to settle for the research credit.
I worked harder on the edits then I did on the original writing. I cut, I polished, I changed. And then I did it again. And again. And again. I didn’t sleep for two days. But I did it! And when I was finally done, I realized that they were better than they had been originally. Now all the ‘fat’ had been trimmed away. And every word that remained, was necessary.
That exercise was the greatest gift a writer could ever receive. Unfortunately Iona’s gone now, but I will be grateful to her for the rest of my life. I think of her, and smile, each and every time I sit down to write anything. Because she taught me an incredibly valuable lesson: Writing is as much about craft as it is about creativity.
Woodworkers bring out the true beauty of wood, with all the carving, sanding, polishing, buffing and oiling they do, over and over again. And that’s exactly what writers do. Only we do it with words.