By: Marilyn L. Davis
Twain Has to Go in the Edits
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 still struggled with what is my voice. Desperately wanted to be taken seriously, I wrote something humorous. Then I’d read posts on improving our writing and try to incorporate what I thought about the topic, and somehow, I ended up with the tone of that writer. Deciding that I wanted to appear knowledgeable, I continued to insert semicolons 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 created Two Drops of Ink, and when I started writing here, most of his edits reflected my misuse of the semicolon. Finally, he told me not to use a semicolon at all; he was tired of editing them out.
Note to Scott and self: 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, and although there might not be someone to edit, there are good grammar sites like Grammarly, Hemingway, or ProWritingAid . Each of these sites have free applications.
Also, if you don’t have an editor, let your work sit for a day or two. When you distance yourself from the writing, you view it with fresh eyes a day or two later.
I’ve also turned off any notifications, and this helps me stop editing, reworking, or revising as I’m writing. When you continuously try to get that introductory sentence just right, your idea for the post often gets lost.
Trial and Error Writers and the Edit
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 Vonnegut says, “The only reason to use a semicolon would be “to show you’ve been to college.”
When I was in college, there wasn’t the luxury of 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. Even without an editor, I managed to have a 3.94 GPA.
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 with that longhand trial and error method.
Writing in the Heavenly Bed?
Mark Twain, in his later years, wrote in his heavenly bed. While I’m not advocating that, writing with pen and paper connects us to the writing in multiple ways. 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. In contrast, a keyboard involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.
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.
Colorful Writing Gives Us Emotional Clues
Therefore, I wrote this post in longhand and employed 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 wrote it in black. However, I’d encourage you to try writing in various colors.
Even if it’s a nonfiction piece, 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. 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. That’s distracting, so it’s just easier to write in your most comfortable language and forget the similar words.
Ask Your Friends – They Know Your Voice
Find your wordsmith friends and ask them to read your piece before you edit it. Or, you can do an initial edit and send them that.
Anne Lamott writes about us birthing our pieces and needing a midwife’s help. She also advocates for medications to ease the discomfort 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 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.
I’ve never had a problem asking my motor-head friends what a strange sound is when it’s my car. I know I don’t know much about engines, and they do.
One told me that the noise in my car isn’t a rock stuck in the wheel well, that it’s a significant problem. Now, I can’t even tell you what that problem was; I know it got fixed because I listened to my motor-head friend.
When we ask friends to edit, remember that they are on their time, not ours. Just a word of caution. Unless you have given them a deadline to respond, don’t disown them when they haven’t replied in time (that’s your time, which may not be theirs). Also, don’t decide the post is drek, and your friends are too kind to tell you.
Wait: Be Patient and Grateful for the Edit
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 someone else can see when they read it.
They are telling you that you have a voice and they aren’t reading yours in the words you’ve chosen. This person knows how you talk. What they’re telling you is that it doesn’t sound like you.
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 apply their advice to the second.
A Good Editor Nurtures Your Voice
I’ve been fortunate; Scott was my Maxwell Perkins. But Perkins wasn’t just an editor. He nurtured talent, was courteous and encouraging, much like Scott Biddulph was with me, and I hope that I am with the writers at Two Drops of Ink now that I’m Editor-in-Chief.
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing