I’m wrapping up 2010 by offering my best suggestions about becoming a better writer. Here’s today’s advice: Creating is different from editing.
Creating (generating ideas) and editing (sharpening sentences and correcting errors) are very different activities, involving different parts of the brain. Both are vital – and they have to be approached in different ways.
Where do ideas come from? On a good day, they simply blaze forth onto a piece of paper or a computer screen. You feel inspired. In bygone days writers would say that a muse had visited them.
Most of us can’t wait around to be inspired, however. The pump must be primed, so to speak. Reading, doing research, journaling, freewriting, webbing, listing, talking to a friend – there are many ways to start the creative juices flowing.
It can be helpful to remember that “create” does not necessarily involve originality. Most great thinkers freely acknowledge that they’re building on ideas and information from others. The writer’s job is to reshape those materials to fit the task at hand.
Editing requires a totally different set of skills: Knowledge of punctuation, spelling, and the other conventions of writing. It also requires a feel for an effective sentence, along with knowing how to write a thesis statement, how to support it, how to organize a paragraph, and similar tasks.
If you were to look at MRIs or brain scans of hundreds of writers at work, you would soon notice that they use different parts of their brains at different times. You might also notice differences in the way the writers’ brains have developed. English courses in schools and colleges tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other.
Some writers – those who spent many hours diagramming sentences and studying traditional grammar – are terrific editors. Others – who attended liberal schools and were encouraged to express themselves freely – are good at creating.
If you want to be a successful writer, you need to be good at both. Or, alternatively, you need to hire a terrific secretary or marry someone who has developed the skills that you’re lacking.
And, at the very least, you need to remind yourself not to get sidetracked into editing too early in the writing process. Have something to say first. Know where your ideas will be taking you. Look for interesting examples that will draw readers into your ideas.
Then – and only then – you can start focusing on gerunds and indefinite pronoun references and all the other grammatical points that educated writers and readers delight in. (I’ve been known to phone writers to congratulate them on getting a subtle usage issue right.)
Creating comes first, editing is second: Sound advice for any writer.