The Constant Editor

When I did A level French Lit, one of the set books was La Peste by Camus. There’s a character in it who wants to write a book but can’t get past the first sentence. He keeps editing it, re-reading it and editing it again.

Whilst not quite as troubled as Camus’ character I do find I have something of that problem. I can’t let a piece of my writing make its appearance on the world stage unless it is perfect, fully formed and a non pareil of its genre. This requires editing…lots of editing.

This habit probably accounts for both the length of time it takes me to write something (blog posts included some days) and the irrepressible urge to write and rewrite and write rewrites of rewrites.

All advice for novice writers is to get it all out of the head and onto the page before starting the edit. I’m sure it’s absolutely the right thing to do but how hard is that?

I faff and fiddle as I write. A couple of paragraphs written…oops, no that doesn’t sound right…have to change that to…and so on. Thus it is that 250 words may take me a couple of hours to pen and it still won’t be quite as I want it.

I try to write every morning – day job permitting –and usually start the session by reading over what I wrote the previous day. If I confined myself to just reading it and picking up the thread it’d be fine. But I don’t. I can’t help myself – it’s addictive – I start editing, pruning, tacking and titivating so nothing new gets written until late morning – if I’m lucky. Often it is at this point that I decide that what I’ve written and edited is trash anyway and bin it.

Let me give you an example – this is the opening sentence or two of a novel I’m working on:

“At the Manoir de la Trinite, perched above the village of Brussac, all was still in the midsummer heat. Yet the gravel carriageway leading to the front courtyard showed signs of hasty passage with scattered pebbles and crushed stems of the lavender that bordered it giving off their last scent.”

Now in the moments after cutting and pasting this little para I’ve already edited it twice and even as I read it again I’m itching to make another change. See what I mean?

This leads me to my next problem – when to stop editing. There has to be a law of diminishing returns surely – something that tells me that even if I delete a comma and change the word order in sentence 715, nothing will add to the quality of the work in a meaningful way.

The only remedy I can think of (and I’d be happy for legal, decent and honest suggestions here – well don’t worry too much about decent) is to go back to writing longhand, away from the PC or laptop, away from the all-too-easy mark, delete or cut & paste.

But can someone please tell me when is enough good enough?

Signing off ‘til Monday so have a good weekend.


7 thoughts on “The Constant Editor

  1. Hi Sheila,

    In case you’re wondering, I edit my blogs, my comments, and everything else; and have the same tendency you have. On the other hand I also teach art on the high school level. For that reason I have gotten very used to saying, “You will probably be more critical of your own work than most other people will be. If you never finish a picture, or throw it away after you do, there is probably someone who would have loved to have it – even if it’s JUST mom wanting to put it on the fridge. You will never create the ‘perfect’ piece.”

    That to say, while I feel that many people spew words without thinking (the internet is TOO easy), the other side is those who never get things out there to counter that tendency. Maybe you should grade yourself. It may be an “A” without being perfect; but if it’s a “B” it may need some more work.

    For what its worth,

    PS I only edited this piece once – Yea. It’s probably a high “B”.

    • My head tells me you’re absolutely right. On the whole we are our own worse critics. I think for me, it has to do with fear to some extent – fear of rejection, of not being good enough and the old chestnut “being found out”. Not sure if that’s particularly a female thing-it’s that feeling that one day everyone is going to see right through you and see how rubbish you are. That’s why I’m almost compelled to keep going over stuff. Thanks for visiting and following. I’ll return the compliment – your site looks reallyu interesting.

  2. As a newbie to the writing scene & with my researcher hat intact I have read numerous books on publishing etc etc. There is a lot to be said for editing, re-reading and re-editing which might I add is something I have been torturing myself with since my first manuscript submission. The fact is that changing one word or one sentence is not going to change the general gist of your plot, your characters or the story outline. When I read these ingenious words as an amateur I was actually quite relieved because I thought in some peculiar way I was heading into a mad house soon! As perfectionists and I’m not trying to blow our own trumpets, but really we need to settle for what we wrote on the first, second or third time not on the 25th edit! Thanks for writing ‘the constant editor’. I feel your angst…

    • At a rational, objective level I do think you’re absolutely right. However, there is something inside me that insists on everything I produce being “perfect”. Totally ridiculous I know – what is “perfect” anyway. I have resolved to reduce my editing to the bare minimum until I’ve got the first draft done. Also, I’m going to take my own advice and go back to writing longhand for a while. I always preferred writing this way but when the tech. became available it seemed the sensible thing to do.

  3. I battle this problem, too. I call it the editing eddies, because it feels like I’m caught in a whirlpool of rewrites. I’ve found it helps when I acknowledge my inner critic. I tell it that while I agree I need to make changes, this isn’t the proper time to do so. I need to write my ideas first. I tell it that I will be happy to listen to all of its suggestions once I begin the editing process. This seems to appease it. I don’t think the inner critic is trying to be hurtful. I think it is an over zealous helper who just wants to be heard.

    • I must admit I rarely talk to my inner crit. and perhaps I should follow your example. Two things I’ve started to do to help with the editing eddies (nice phrase btw) I’m writing longhand again – not for everything but when ideas are really bursting out and I’ve bought a small voice recorder so when I go off on walks I can record the story and live up to my reputation as a total mad woman of the village. 🙂

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