Monday, January 08, 2007

Writing versus Editing

Happy New Year, everyone! I've been somewhat out of practice posting here, missing my last two weeks because of the holidays. But I'm back, and raring to go. And I've been updating and upgrading my personal blog in the meantime.

Speaking of my personal blog, in response to this "Why do I blog" post, I was asked the following question which I'll use as the topic of my post here:

Here are some questions, possibly for the BRG blog, but personal, too, and inspired by your admission that you are currently better equipped to edit than to write.

What is the essential difference in skills required for writing and editing? Specifically, what are your strengths as an editor and weaknesses as a writer? As you see them, of course.

I'll admit that that admission was somewhat of a throwaway statement on my part, maybe just an excuse for why I'm not writing a book even though I'd like to someday, but after thinking about it (great question!), here are my conclusions. First of all, although I think that writing and editing require different skills and practice, the skills involved complement each other, which is why I think there ARE many editors who also write, and why most writers can edit (although not usually their own stuff). Editing is all about being a reader, being able to identify problems and recommend solutions, to predict issues that other readers may notice. It doesn't involve being able to craft an amazing sentence, to come up with that beautiful metaphor or imagery, to create living, breathing characters. It just requires you to be able to identify when a sentence or passage isn't working, to recommend where or when that beautiful metaphor or imagery may need to be inserted, to point out when a character's personality isn't coming through.

I think another of my strengths as an editor comes because I'm not a writer, because I wouldn't even begin to try rewriting an author's work. I think for some editors it's a temptation, or even a practice to be very heavy-handed with line editing, but I see this as being disrespectful of the author. But maybe it's because I know my weakness as a writer that I tend to acquire very literary writing--where the actual writing/voice needs less guidance, and I'm able to focus more on the big-picture issues, and making sure moments are working, the plot makes sense, believability issues. Then again, and this is where the whole "finding the right editor-author fit" is important--I think some authors want/need editors who are more hands-on, and others prefer not.

I think one of my strengths as an editor is that I'm able to ask the difficult questions of the author, and push them to take the work to the next level. I think (I hope!) that I'm also able to ask the questions in a way that doesn't offend, to balance the recommendations with praise.

In terms of my weakness as a writer, I also tend to be long-winded, and I tend to overuse adjectives (at least in my marketing writing). I also think I lack subtlety in my writing. And although I can see all this, I can't really seem to solve it for myself. It's like relationship issues--it's so much easier to understand and solve someone else's problems, but when it comes to your own issues, you're blind to them. And this, of course, is another main difference. I think most writers can edit, but nobody can truly edit their own work. Oh, and one more weakness? I don't have any good ideas for books. I think one of the reasons it would be hard for me to write as well as edit is that I read SO MUCH in my job, that I would be afraid that I'd steal an idea that I've read without realizing it.

As I said, I think both writing and editing require skill and practice. I honestly don't know what talent/skill for actual editing that I already possessed when I came into the job--although I've always been a voracious reader, especially as a child, when I started my job I felt at a disadvantage because I wasn't an English major and did not have four years in college to focus on critical reading. But I think years of reading submissions and focusing on editing and writing editorial letters, and reading other editors' editorial letters in my company (I mentioned this in my "How I Edit" post), have allowed me to continue to acquire the skills to do my job. If, instead, I had focused on writing all of these years, perhaps I could be as confident in my writing skills as I am in my editing skills, but that is not the path I have taken.

Of course, talent doesn't hurt, either, and when I read the works that my authors' write, I respect them so much and am in awe. And I honestly don't think I have that level of talent in me, no matter how hard I worked at the craft. I don't have the writing bug in my soul like most of the authors I know.

I think I have many strengths as an editor that do not involve the actual skill of editing, but as I think the latter part was the intent of the question, I won't go into that here.

This was a very tough question, and I'm not sure if I haven't answered it to my own satisfaction. And, ironically, I'm not sure if I edited this post to my satisfaction! But this is a blog (not a book), and I wanted to post this on time this morning.

I'd love to hear what other authors and editors think. And heck, what do the authors I've worked with think? I've edited two of the BRGs: so Grace and Libby, what do you think my strengths as an editor are? We can save the weaknesses for another time. :) Because I certainly have those as well, and it's easier for me to list those off, so I won't.


Anonymous said...

It's a very interesting question, and one that I've struggled with from time to time--the guilt that I'm not finishing the novel I started over four years ago, before grad school and work took up my creative energy.

And that's the main thing for me: creative energy. I use my creative energy most efficiently helping my authors tell the story they want to tell. I write for fun, but when it stops being fun--i.e., when I have to work through exhaustion to do it--I have to find some other outlet, because it's stopped being the outlet I need.

I'm like you in that my talents lie more on the editing side than the writing side, and since I had to choose to do *something* to make a living, editing is what I choose to develop my skills at the most. I still intend to write that book, and maybe others, but I think I'll have to come to a place in my career where I'm not always trying to work overtime so that I have the energy to think about writing when I'm home from a long day of looking at other peoples' writing.

As a related note, do you find that it's hard to read outside of work? I've been rather burnt out on reading for pleasure lately, because I find it becomes a work thing--how does this fit into the market, what are the trends for this book, what is this author doing right and where can they improve, etc. As much as I enjoy the story, I tend to think about my reading as a work thing rather than a pleasure thing.

So for me, I try to limit my outside reading and writing, and do other activities that renew me, so that I can focus better at work. Of course I still read to know what's out there in the market. But there's often just *so* much to read that it can get overwhelming sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Great topic! I really enjoyed reading what you both had to say and look forward to more comments.


Anonymous said...

I hope Grace and Libby will weigh in.

Thanks, Alvina.

Grace Lin said...

Great post. I think you're a great editor! What I enjoy most about working with you is what you said--you focus on the big picture, how things flow and come together. Because of that, I always feel confident when I send you my first draft that even if it isn't completely polished, you'll be able to see where it is going and what I should do with it. I also like that you let me work it out and rewrite it, instead using a heavy hand.

Libby Koponen said...

Why I love working with Alvina:
* your ability to see what I'm aiming for -- even when it's not there!
* way you let ME do it (make the changes) without telling me how to do it -- just what you's exactly the right level of detail for me...
*the tactful, positive way everything is always put: I always feel as though Alvina really likes me and loves my work, whatever she says. Maybe this should be first
*your ability to get along with the other people at work (this I think is a huge part of being a good editor and it can be hard to reconcile with artistic fervor)
*the way I can write "long" without worrying -- I know you will tell me what to cut and this makes doing drafts a lot easier. This perhaps is something I should try to outgrow and do for myself.....
*we have FUN while we work and communicate really well (I'm thinking of how we worked on a ghostwriting prokect, which was very much a collaboration and one I really enjoyed)

Thank you, Alvina!

Jey Manokaran said...

These are fascinating posts, Alvina. Would you perhaps write that book the way you write your blog - and make it an autobiography?

Jey (friend from India)