Which Came First, the Author or the Editor?

As I sit down each week to write a new installment of my novel, I often find myself puzzling over a chicken or egg–type question: What was I first, a writer or an editor? Can someone be a good editor without understanding how to be a solid writer first? How about vice versa?

For me, these two roles are inextricable. I can’t imagine deserving the privilege of editing someone else’s writing without having spent many years trying to craft sentences of my own that flow better, read more clearly, leave a certain kind of mark on the reader. By the same token, I can’t conceive of drafting my own book or magazine article without drawing constantly upon the lessons I’ve learned through fine-tuning other writers’ language.

This feedback loop certainly doesn’t apply to all publishing professionals, but that’s usually because they’ve consciously chosen one area of specialization. For example, several seasoned editors I know steadfastly claim, “I love editing, but I don’t want to be a writer”—yet I believe that if these same people, whose adeptness with language and grammar is undeniable, decided to parlay their editing skills into a book or article or blog of their own, they’d do a great job with the crossover. Then, of course, there are the writers who straight-up aren’t interested in editing—and kudos to them, too, because it can be really tedious. If you’re a macro-focused author with an editor and/or publisher whom you trust implicitly, why not focus on the creative, big-picture stuff and farm out the micromanagement of your text to someone who’s genuinely into it?

But what if you’re a double agent, like I am? This is where things can get tricky and feelings (my own) can get hurt (by me). As the editor of other writers’ work, I derive deep satisfaction from the treasure-hunt aspects of copyediting (Aha! A misplaced modifier!) and from rearranging all the building blocks of a manuscript like Jenga pieces during a developmental edit. But when I put on my author hat, those “treasures” aren’t quite so sweet when I come across them in my own work (A misplaced modifier? How could I have been so sloppy?), nor is all the time I have to spend in my personal woodshop, sawing and sanding those Jenga sticks until I have what passes for a complete tower.

My editing experience also has a way of turning my writing process into a slog through wet sand. As often as people ask me, “What’s the big deal? Just sit down and let it flow”; as many times as I’ve lamented to my writing coach that sometimes it takes me hours to write only four pages; as much as I want to silence what my coach calls saboteurs—those inner voices taunting me, Hurry up! What’s the holdup?—I just can’t resist self-editing. I treat every sentence within every paragraph within every chapter, not to mention the novel as a whole, as a project unto itself, something to belabor often to the point of obsession.

Sometimes when I’m writing, I think of the movie Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman plays Nina, a technically meticulous but dangerously uptight ballerina who is cast as the lead in Swan Lake. Nina dances the austere White Swan to perfection in her audition, but when it comes time for her to portray the savage abandon that the part of the Black Swan embodies, she falters—she’s just too rigid. One day during rehearsal, Portman watches enviously as her understudy, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), pirouettes wildly around the studio. Their instructor (Vincent Cassel) sidles up next to her and whispers, “Watch the way she moves—imprecise, but effortless.” At that moment, Lily careens into a fellow dancer, but she just laughs and keeps on spinning—just as the Black Swan should.

Guess which swan I am in this scenario? I’d love to say I’m like Lily when I write—loose, easygoing, letting the words tumble out of me onto the page with joyful recklessness—but I’m just not. I’m Nina all the way (minus the bloody cuticles). That’s because there’s an editor alter ego inside my author persona all the time, and while I hope I don’t end up stabbing her with a shard of broken mirror, like Nina did to Lily, I do wish she would let me spread my wings a little more some days.

I console myself with this idea, though: maybe all the personal policing my writing process involves on the front end will pay off in the form of a more polished manuscript on the back end. Everyone has to tackle pesky issues like verb-tense shifts and word repetition and punctuation errors at some point, but some writers (understandably, I might add) prefer to put off dealing with these details until they’ve completed a rough draft. I suspect that’s how Lily would approach her own novel. But, again, that’s simply not who I am. So I’m crossing my t‘s, as well as my fingers, the first time around, in hopes that both my editor self and my author self feel good about our book.

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3 thoughts on “Which Came First, the Author or the Editor?

  1. Editors just have to, can’t stop editing. Is the same said by all writers? Is the creative pull of the writer stronger
    than the editor’s sense of order and correctness? What does your Joan Didion, or for that matter, George Orwell say about it?

  2. Annie, you’re an amazing writer, editor, AND copyeditor – a triple threat of awesome! Nina and her bloody cuticles weren’t a triple threat at anything except crazy. 🙂

  3. Great post, Annie. I appreciate this perspective. So many editors want to write, after all, and I think they struggle under the weight of having edited so many great writers over the years. Definitely sharing this post with others in the same boat.

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