‘The truth is where the sculptor’s chisel chipped away the lie’
~They Might Be Giants, ‘The Statue Got Me High’
It is a subject that keeps getting touched on in the writing groups I haunt. I used to sit in front of blank paper or a blank screen and just stew. A thought would pop or an idea would simmer up to the surface, but before I could jot one word down, my brain took over with its giant red pen and began making corrections.
I usually suggest to people who are struggling in their writing to turn off their internal editor, to give themselves permission to suck. Keep writing, trudge forth, no matter how bad the spelling, grammar or if you leave plot holes big enough to swallow a car. Do not make any corrections or edit the piece at all until you are through the first draft. Because, no matter how dreadful you think your first draft might turn out, it is still a hell of a lot easier to edit than a blank page.
I have come to a place where I can completely separate the two states of mind.
Write first, no thought beyond the idea at hand. No matter how good or bad or rambling or off topic the tangents tend to veer, I don’t stop. I don’t edit. I don’t look back for the misspelled word, or glance at the fallen soldiers and dangling participles. Just keep moving. I give myself plenty of time and space to fully explore all ideas, and I sometimes surprise myself with the words that come out when I’m not trying to think of a more clever way to say it.
I even find myself becoming more efficient and sticking closer to the point. Although I do allow myself ample room to stretch out, I know what comes after this part, and I still hate to cut too many long-sought-after words.
The editorial side of my mind has taken an almost sadistic, sinister air. After giving my writing brain free rein on the paper, it is time for my internal editor to come in, clean up the mess, and throw this seemingly random collection of words and phrases into some semblance of order, something that will make sense to the average random reader. I sharpen my chisel, I break out the duct tape, the white-out and a fresh tin of polish.
My internal editor has become quite proficient and takes great joy in his work. I wade through the words, cutting out the easy parts, the overgrown sentences that can be trimmed of three or four non-essential verbs without losing any of the context, the unnecessary adjectives and adverbs that do little to the story but weigh it down with more words and take up too much space. I cut, I slice, I replace entire strings of thought with one or two well-chosen words, long descriptions are made sparse, sharp, and clear.
And then I sit there with scissors in hand, looking over each sentence one at a time, seeing where I can join two of them together if they are essentially part of the same thought. Looking for any dead weight or clumsy asides I can snip out.
I will sometimes stare at a sentence for ten, fifteen minutes wondering how I can further cut it down to size. Can I get rid of the ‘as if’ without altering the context of the thought? How much is it possible to say with the fewest amount of words?
This is the only place where I will admit that Twitter has a purpose. It has forced me to more fully appreciate brevity, as I often struggle to properly make a point and keep within the 140 character limit. It gives breathing life to the notion of ‘less is more’.
It also comes from years of editing my own work, and the long-winded sentences I tend toward, where prepositional phrase is tied to the end of prepositional phrase, in a chain of thought that becomes so long and rambling that I can’t look back and see where I started from, or what point I was originally trying to make.
© Robert Emmett McWhorter