By: Marilyn L. Davis
Maxwell Perkins edited many famous authors, and one of his comments to a room full of aspiring writers has always helped me feel positive about my writing:
“If you have a Mark Twain, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain. Because in the end, an editor can get only as much out of an author as the author has in him.”
While I found Perkins’ quote encouraging, I did struggle with what is my voice. I desperately wanted to be taken seriously, even as I wrote something humorous. I’d labor and read every other post on improved writing and try to incorporate what I thought about the topic and somehow, I ended up with the tone of that writer. I wanted to be perceived as knowledgeable as I continued to insert semi-colons as if they were a period and each sentence needed one.
My Maxwell Perkins
Scott Biddulph has been a close friend for over twenty years. He’s also the editor-in-chief at Two Drops of Ink.
He finally told me not to use a semicolon at all; he was tired of editing them out.
Note to Scott: The above semicolon is correct, please do not edit.
What If There Is No Editor?
Part of the dilemma for any writer with a blog is the issue of who edits. Most single source blogs, while sounding like the individual, often contain problem passages, disconnected paragraphs, and grammar issues. Many don’t seem edited in my opinion.
A simple way to edit work if you don’t have a trusted editor like Scott Biddulph, is to distance yourself from the work. That’s right – walk away from the piece, or at least stop reworking, revising, and rereading the previous paragraphs as you’re trying to write a post. When you constantly print out, reread, and keep trying to get that introductory sentence just right, your idea for the post often gets lost.
Your Idea is the Purpose of the Post
While it’s admirable to understand the use of the semicolon, it represented my attempt to be something I am not, a school-educated writer. Or as Kurt Vonegut says, “The only reason to use a semicolon would be “to show you’ve been to college.”
So, even though I’ve been to college, I felt less than because I wasn’t in college to learn to be a writer. Back when I was in school, there wasn’t the luxury of scroll back up and edit as you go, cut out an entire paragraph and paste elsewhere, scratch that out and start over. No, I wrote all of my papers in longhand until I’d exhausted the topic and then went back and revised.
And I managed to have a 3.94 GPA, so, my point is that I produced essays or research papers that made sense and got good grades. Maybe I knew something then that I forgot.
There’s a kinetic connection when we write in longhand that can be lost using a keyboard.
Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas a keyboard involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.
And one recent study of hers demonstrated that in grades two, four, and six, children wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard. My untested study theorizes that if it works for grades two, four, and six, it should work for me.
Therefore, I wrote this post in longhand, and employing a trick I used in the recovery home. I had the women write in blue if they were sad. When they were angry, frustrated, or ready to tear their hair out, they’d write in red, and if envious, well, that’s green.
Since I wasn’t sad, angry or envious, I simply wrote it in black. However, I’d encourage you to try writing in various colors.
You might be surprised how those color clues help you stay in character if you’re writing dialogue for a fiction piece, or even a nonfiction piece as it helps you get in touch with feelings you have about the topic.
The other interesting thing about writing in longhand is language stays more authentic. Certainly you can have a Thesaurus next to you, but if you’re like most of us, you’ll look up one word, only to have a shiny moment and get lost in another, so it’s just easier to write in your most comfortable language and forget the similar words.
Back to Twain and Shakespeare
Anne Lamott writes about us birthing our pieces and needing a midwife’s help during the process. I’ve done Lamaze and an epidural and completely agree with her that an epidural is by far better; it was the help I needed to experience the moment without getting lost in the pain. So, the midwife aspect and approach – coaching, holding our hand, and comforting us, well, that’s what a trusted friend or editor can do as well.
They tell us that the noise in our car isn’t a rock stuck in the wheel well, it’s actually a major problem. Now, I can’t even tell you what that problem was, I just know it got fixed because I listened to my motor head friend.
Find your wordsmith friends and ask them to read your piece before you edit it, or if you want to edit, go ahead, but still let them read it, considering it a “first edited draft”.
Just a word of caution. Unless you have given them a deadline to respond, don’t disown them when they haven’t responded in time (that’s your time, which may not be theirs), or decide that what you’ve written is drek and they are too kind to tell you.
Be patient and wait.. .
If they are good friends, they won’t be afraid to tell you that they got bored, that your plot thickened into a quagmire and they got stuck, or that your tenses didn’t match. It’s those “glaring faults” that can be avoided if you let someone else read your piece.
When they tell you it doesn’t read like you, I know you’re inclined to ask them in your most sarcastic manner, “Who the hell do you think wrote it”? Don’t.
They are telling you that you have a voice and they aren’t reading yours in the words. This is a person that knows how you talk and write and you might have been trying to sound like Twain or Shakespeare and we know those roles are filled.
When they tell you that you did a better job on another project, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Ask them what worked in the first post, piece, or even book and try to adjust your second one.
I’m fortunate to have Scott as my Maxwell Perkins. But Perkins wasn’t just an editor. He nurtured talent, was courteous and encouraging, much like Scott Biddulph is at Two Drops of Ink. But I’m generous and willing to share Scott. So, stop by our submissions page and see if your voice isn’t improved by a caring editor.
For more about voices, editing and editors, see if the following aren’t helpful.