Every writer, no matter how brilliant, needs editing. First she needs her own intense editing process, and then she needs an informed and objective eye to see beyond her own, too-close-in vision.
That statement is so obvious as to hardly be worth saying. There is, however, a more complex question to raise about this editing process. At what point is criticism of any kind, self-criticism or criticism from an outsider, useful?
I was one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair for Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Though I’m retired now, I am still passionate about that program. The intense, critical, supportive process generated the most amazing growth I had ever seen in the participating writers’ work. Nonetheless, I was aware every step of the way that MFA programs—writers’ workshops, too, for that matter—come with a built-in hazard. Sometimes writers get too much input too soon.
When I taught at VCFA, I never knew how to get around that too-much too-soon problem. If I let my students submit their manuscripts in packet after packet and handed out nothing more than “good work, keep going,” their energy would probably remain high, but they certainly weren’t getting what they were paying for. They needed my editorial insight, the critical as well as the laudatory. But a question always remained that was sometimes difficult to answer. At what point is it productive for a writer to begin to question a manuscript? How can she edit—or receive edits—as she works without slowing or even stopping her momentum? Obviously, the answer varies from writer to writer and manuscript to manuscript.
I once mentored a writer independently who lost the novel she had brought to me because I kept sending her back to the beginning to try to set a solid foundation. I was right. Her foundation wasn’t solid. But I realize now that getting it that way probably wasn’t what she needed to be doing at that stage. After she had set the novel aside in frustration, I realized that she might have discovered that foundation if she had simply kept writing until she’d discovered what the novel was supposed to be about. I’d mentored her into oblivion.
One of the pieces of advice most often given to developing writers is this: Don’t take out your editor-brain too soon. Start out by throwing the words at the page, galloping through a first draft, ignoring all matters of grammar, spelling, punctuation. Don’t ask any question that will slow you down. Only after you have a rich mishmash of words on the page, should you begin asking questions about your story, deal with matters of punctuation, grammar, spelling, style, allow yourself or anyone else to offer suggestions.
That is, no doubt, good advice for some, especially for writers whose editor voice seems primarily to say, “Stop! You can’t do this! You’re not good enough, smart enough, anything enough to do what you are attempting here.” Then you probably need to blast your way past that voice with a torrent of words. It is not, however, good advice for me. My editor-brain works with me, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. I write, go back over what I have written to edit and then move forward. Every time I sit down I go back to revise as a way of building momentum to move on. Because I work with my own editor-brain fully engaged, if I lose my footing along the way, I know it, and then, even in the midst of my first draft, an outside editor is enormously helpful.
Does that mean writing workshops and MFA programs are a bad idea for some? No, I think they are one of the best ideas out there for developing writers. It does mean, though, that receiving criticism, our own or a fellow writer’s or a mentor’s, always requires a balancing act. We have to critique the critique, and that is never more true than when a manuscript is still in a fluid state.
If we’re sharing our work at a workshop or working with a teacher, we need to establish an understanding with ourselves and those outside editors: How much momentum will I lose if I stop to revise now? Am I setting a stronger foundation by going back to revise or merely avoiding writing my way into unknown material?
No one can recognize the problem of too much too soon except we writers ourselves, and that’s true whether the advice comes from our own brain or from another.