Put down the red pen and step away from the story

No, I’m not telling you to stop editing. It’s NaNoEdMo right now after all, so you should be editing more than ever if you’re participating! What I do want to talk about is those times you shouldn’t have your red pen primed and ready. But first—anecdotage about what inspired these thoughts.

I recently attended a concert where the conductor gave a talk beforehand and he said something I found very interesting and applicable to many creative works. He said that the worst place to hear a concert is from the conductor’s rostrum, because so close to the orchestra you can hear all the individual instruments too clearly. The conductor has to hear them that way to work with them, but it’s a different effect to what the audience hears. They hear the instruments blended and balanced into a coherent whole. It’s the conductor’s job to create that blend, but in doing so, they can’t hear the effect themselves.

It struck me that this is rather like working on a story. (Amazing how often I think something is “just like writing”. Anyone would think I was obsessed or something.) When editing, the writer has to strike a balance between being close to the story, working on individual elements, and being at a distance like a reader, seeing the whole effect, being part of the audience.

This is why I like to leave some time between drafting and editing a long story. It isn’t always possible, but if you can do it, I say DO IT! It gives you emotional distance from a work. It allows you time to forget the detail of it.

After I leave if for a while the next step for me is to read it again—but as if I was a reader, an audience member, not the conductor, not part of the process. I’ve been doing that on my ereader since I got that. It creates a much more realistic book-reading experience. That’s a normal way for me to read other books, so it makes reading my MS feel far more like reading an already completed book. It helps me see the story as a whole and not worry about its component parts yet. I never do any corrections at this point. I don’t even highlight things or make notes of them, since that’s not what I’d do when reading a book normally. I’m at a distance. I’m a reader. I’m the audience member out in the hall hearing the whole orchestra.

Then I get back in close, seeing all the elements of the story individually and needing to weave them together in perfect harmony. I’m the conductor up on the rostrum. The creator of that harmony. As the editing goes on I have to keep going back and forth, close and distant. I can line edit a chapter, polish up the prose, but then I must step back and consider how that chapter works as a whole. And then a little further back and consider how it works in the context of the whole story. This is true at every level, whether paragraph, scene or chapter. All have to work as an individual element, and also blend in seamlessly to the whole story.

So learn to give your work some distance. Sometimes you have to step back from it, and hear the whole orchestra.

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2 thoughts on “Put down the red pen and step away from the story

  1. You make editing sound so easy. I wish! Though I’ve had quite a bit of distance from both my MS’s so maybe that will help me with their editing. I just don’t know if I’ve got the confidence to ‘edit’ sometimes.

    And you? Obsessed? Never…

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