Criticism & editing

“I could never be a writer,” my friend said at dinner last night. Why? “I couldn’t stand the criticism.”

We’d been talking about editing, so that surprised me. I’d just quoted Hemingway’s line about everyone’s first drafts being shit.

Once you recognize that everyone writes crap, how can there be any shame in editing?

editing is not the same as criticismStill, people hate the very thought of editing. So they do one of two things: they avoid writing, like my friend; or they publish crap. I couldn’t survive at either of those extremes. So I write. And I edit.

We’re more than two-thirds of the way through my 12-week writing class. And I still haven’t talked about editing. It’s coming—not this week, maybe the next. If I think editing is so important how could I leave it so late in the course? Because I wanted to get my people writing.

I wanted to give them the space to write without being self-conscious about whether they’re doing it “right.” So they take their weekly writing prompts and run with them, or they write on their own projects. And they feel more confident every day. They’re starting to believe me when I say that they have all the tools they need to “find their voice” or write for a business audience or incorporate humor into their work. That “writing” is not something other than what they’ve been doing their whole lives—and that they can refine what they’ve been doing instinctively to make it even better.

I’ve taught them to start everything with the same sentence–simple, but true: “I am a good writer.”

And they are, amazing and creative. It’s a joy to watch them come into their own.

Is editing criticism?

That’s not to say I haven’t made suggestions. They’re not paying me to be a cheerleader. And a good thing; I have terrible pom-pom technique. I’ve even offered to edit one piece for each of them, so they can see what I would suggest.

But I hope they don’t think of editing as criticism. Certainly not the first edit—when you’re editing yourself. I think of it as pruning (and that’s an analogy my friend would understand—I wish I’d thought of it last night). Or sculpting, which, as Michelangelo explained was merely chipping away at the marble until everything that wasn’t the statue was gone. Sometimes our ideas get encrusted in words and they need us to free them. As Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Some writers may dread the editing process. I don’t, perhaps because I don’t think of it as “editing.” I think of it as the second (or third, or…) stage in writing.

Everyone does it. There’s no need for criticism, or shame.

  • mindset
  • writing