Monthly Archives: August 2015

Do modern writing tools enable us to edit too much?

quill pen and ink on colonial American desk

CC image Williamsburg Quill courtesy of Steve Kennedy on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

We have a lot of tools that make our writing lives easier than they ever were before. Instead of relying on writing by hand, we may use computers and voice recorders and digital shortcuts. Instead of worrying about the precious value, high price, and accessibility of paper, we can publish and produce enormous volumes of writing without printing a word. We can archive, edit, and remix text to our heart’s content, at the touch of a finger.

Is this a good thing, though?

Earlier this year, I finished a historical novel about the sister-in-law of Friedrich Schiller, the famous German poet, playwright, and philosopher. He was a Titan in his day and is acknowledged as one of the fathers of German literature. His sister-in-law, Caroline von Wolzogen, was a published writer as well and a recognized literary talent in her time, although she is not as well-known today. The novel is told from her perspective: writing as a woman during a time when that was unusual (the end of the 18th and the early 19th centuries), and what it was like to be overshadowed by an acclaimed literary genius in her own family.

Schiller died relatively young, and he had a prodigious output—nearly a dozen plays, several volumes of history, novels, and numerous philosophical papers. There were no typewriters in his day, no voice-recognition dictation machines, much less computers or even ballpoint pens to make the task of writing easier. He wrote out all of his work by hand. Wolzogen saw his original manuscripts and marveled at how few changes he made to his writing—he was sure of his work whenever he used the pen.

This made me think about the way we edit today, the number of versions we can put any of our manuscripts, essays, poems or articles through, and whether that option is to our benefit or not. Revision the way we can do it now would have been a tedious undertaking for Schiller, under the best of circumstances. The work from concept to publication would take even longer than usual; with a work of any greater length, this might have meant not publishing it at all. Certainly, Schiller would have had trouble sustaining his output if he’d had to revise his plays (by hand) the way we can use the computer to revise today.

The Passive Voice blog hosted an excerpt about this very topic. In the comments, I found one of the most useful and informative approaches to editing that I’ve recently seen. One of the visitors quoted another writer on the ease with which she got work finished, and then also published, depending on the number of revisions inflicted on the draft.

Two revisions were her maximum number, she determined after going over her own experiences. Works that she kept on revising tended to never get done, or they got over-done, or they never made it to the publisher.

I know we like to look at the computer, the typewriter, in fact any tool to aid in the speeding up of the writing process (in terms of words per minute or words per day) as an asset. I do wonder though if we’re allowing the ease of change to run away with our writerly judgement. Schiller and Wolzogen used their brains to work at their writing without always occupying their fingers with writing. The actual writing was a serious investment in time, muscle cramp of the fingers, and expensive items like paper and ink. Can you imagine having to revise everything by hand? What about a clean draft?

We on the other hand can write any old drivel, and it’s not a big deal, because it’s only pixels. We can also change any old drivel at any point, which is also easy, because it’s only pixels… even if we print the pages out, our cost overhead is less than with the paper in Schiller’s day. Revising is easier, though perhaps more brainless. Do we get the better product out of it?

Faceoff: Creativity and goals don’t mix well

close face photo of a brown bear

Be creative…now! CC image Eye to Eye courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Being creative and being goal-oriented are two different things. This statement may sound like a resounding example of the obvious, but for me this has been the discovery of week.

I start my writing residency soon. Early on after being accepted, I had grand plans for what I would do in preparation for the residency. I would get the manuscript ready in myriad ways: writing first drafts of chapters and scenes; research; organization; the digitization of all my notes. In short, I have not met these goals. With the impending “deadline” of my departure on the near horizon, I have found myself in a state of agita about my failure to accomplish these tasks.

But really, who cares? I mean, this isn’t a homework assignment. No one at the residency is going to approach me with a checklist, before or after my residency begins, and ask, “Did you do X, Y, and Z before coming here? Have you completed A, B, and C while you were here?” The whole point of a writing residency is time and space. The work is the writer’s own.

The muse is a fickle flirt. Courting her is akin to courting a cat: you never know quite where you stand, or whether you will be met with purring affection and head butts, or raised hackles and a clawed swipe or bite. We receive contradictory recommendations on how to make the muse love us.

These include: Set a regular schedule for writing, and stick to it. Be ready for inspiration whenever it strikes you—carry a notebook, computer, or voice recording device wherever you go (this piece of advice is especially nefarious for overachievers like myself, who see bringing the notebook with them everywhere as a challenge to, you know, write in it. Accomplish something!). Keep a pen and paper by your bed. Allow yourself to go about your everyday routine without thinking of writing. But most of all, DON’T FRIGHTEN THE MUSE AWAY BY BEING TOO NEEDY.

Ah, goals. Goals to be ready for Optimum Creativity, goals to execute specific steps, goals for deadlines. Goals are great, and meeting them is fun and useful, of course. But to be an absolutist in the face of writing goals (they must all be done and they must ALL be done exactly right) is a recipe for muse disaster.

As @joannechocolat pointed out in a recent tweet and blog post, this is all-or-nothing thinking. If you do this in writing, you might also be absolutist in other areas of life. Take note. You won’t take well to not meeting your word count and you will be unhappy when your writing plan doesn’t go to plan. I speak from experience.

Let’s take a moment to visit that friend to all writers, the dictionary. Merriam-Webster has this to say about a goal:
:  the end toward which effort is directed :  aim

Notice the entry doesn’t say, “the achievement of that end.” The emphasis lies on the action or aim, not the result.

While checklists are great, don’t let them rule your life. Word counts are useful targets, but if you fall short by, say, 235 words today you don’t need to add exactly that many on to tomorrow’s count, to “make up the difference.” Deadlines are fine… when you have finished your draft and are talking to an editor or a book designer. Deadlines for your draft are not fine. Deadlines and creativity don’t mix well.

Set the stage as well as you can, but allow yourself to have fun improvising. If you lose sight of the joy in play, you’ll lose sight of why you started this endeavor in the first place. Note to self.