Monday, September 26, 2011

Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can’t…

I have hated all my life the saying “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” It’s horrifically insulting to teachers who are, in my opinion, great shapers of the future. It also doesn’t take into account the altruistic nature of teaching. I think it should be, “Those who can, love their discipline so much they want to share their knowledge, passion and talent with others so that they too can enjoy the subject as much, and thus they teach.”

That said, I’m feeling my own version of the quote coming on. Driving home last night I was struck by the idea that “Those who can, write. Those who can’t, edit.”

I can’t get the thought out of my head.

Since the moment I decided that I wanted to pen a novel I’ve called myself a writer. It’s become part of my identity and self-definition. When people ask, “what do you do?” I say, “I’m a writer.” Lately though, I’m feeling a little like a fraud.

I’ve done very little writing over a very long stretch of time and I’m wondering if I can still even call myself a writer. Do I still have the drive it takes to write a novel? Do I still have the love for crafting? Am I a writer, or just an editor?

I said it. I used “just” when referring to the job of editor.

Editing is essential, every author knows that. We probably do more editing than actual writing on a novel when all is said and done. Producing professional manuscripts requires no less, and nothing makes prose shine so brightly as removing the clutter around it that threatens to drown the beauty of the words.

Editing, though, is not creating.

It is not sitting at the computer grinding out page after page of prose and dialogue and action and heartache. It is not crafting something from nothing, rediscovering the world from an entirely new perspective or taking someone on a journey only your imagination could conceive.

Editing is taking a creation, yours or someone else’s, and working like a scientist on it, analyzing, weighing and measuring. You edit grammar, punctuation, inconsistencies, repetitions… you trim word fat, seek and destroy passive voice, axe adverbs and generally act like a writer’s assistant. A valuable and essential assistant, but an assistant nonetheless.

Have I become an assistant, instead of a writer?

I edit non-fiction for my full time job. In my spare time, which could be used for writing, I somehow find more editing to occupy me. First I worked on my crit partner’s fabulous novel, Wishstone. 100% worth every second of effort spent on it and I’d do that again and again. It was a whirlwind and exciting and I am thankful to have been a part of the whole process. But after that, did I get back to writing?

No. Instead I took on more editing to help me avoid writing. First some editing for Entangled Publishing, next 6 editing tests for Harlequin, each from 50-100 pages long. Then judging a writing contest. Now editing a paper. All good causes, but, is this what I’ve become? An editor, instead of a writer?

And at what point do I have to give up the belief that I am in fact a writer and settle for being an editor?


  1. Is this value-judgement masquerading as a time management question? Is it possible that you enjoy being near writing, and polishing it more than the act of writing? Do you prefer the lifestyle associated with editing more than that paired with writing?

    I like being around science and engineering, influencing decisions and strategy a lot more than I enjoy lab work and pure science/engineering. Does this mean that I'm not an engineer, and I have two degrees to aid my false advertising?

    I'm clearly not an expert, but it seems that the key to professional success is a simple exercise in identification. What do you like to do that you can do better than 90 - 95% of people interested in that field? Pursue that. It doesn't matter if its not the sexiest option. It will be the most satisfying.

    For what its worth, I still fancy myself a writer. I can't remember my last creative or journalistic effort.

  2. You've published a prize-winning novel and an awesome short-story, you've completed a much-acclaimed novel/thesis that you could publish any time, and you regularly impress your blog readers and writing partners with amazing, creative prose that shows your full-fledged and growing talents. It is obvious that you *CAN* as a writer, just as you *CAN* as an editor and in the many other arenas of life where you've proven yourself remarkably capable. I honestly think you are one of the rare people who can do great at ANYTHING you put your energy into, even at really hard and competitive things like writing fiction for a living. But I sympathize with your troubles deciding where to put your energy. Good luck finding the right balance!

  3. PS- Love the blog subtitle. :) Is that new or did I just notice it today? PPS- I also reckon that no time spent editing is ever wasted.

  4. I struggled with the same identification issues when editing time was first taking over the writing time. I had wanted to be a professional writer for so long! So was I turning my back on my goals? Was I giving up?

    I finally came to the realization that no, I wasn't. I had simply found something else that I was good at, that I truly enjoyed. I love the intellectual and creative challenges that editing presents, and I love the chance to be a kind of teacher and mentor for authors.

    I still write occasionally, and I have plenty of projects that I wish I had more time to devote to . . . but at least at this stage of my career, I'm an editor first. And I'm OK with that, because I enjoy the work, and I feel that it is truly worthwhile to help other creative individuals polish their work.

    I can totally see you pursuing work on both sides of the desk and excelling at them both.

  5. This is the first I've ever commented on a blog, I think! See what all my recent computer-immersion has learned me? Is it possible to comment here without using LiveJournal or the other choices in the drop-down?

    Anyway. Love the comments you've gotten so far! Of course, I selfishly want you to be a writer, but I know first-hand how good you are at editing (blush . . . thanks for the million plugs you've given my story in various places). I see no reason why you can't do both, but I suspect you are more a writer-who-can-edit than an editor-who-can-write.

    I love editing. I did it for fourteen years as a high school teacher, four as an SHU student, and so many more for you and our other crit partner. For me, editing is what teaches me how to write better. I could never write without also having to look into someone else's writing to see what I feel works or not.

    So what if you haven't written in a while? I took more than three YEARS off with all that was going on in my mental and physical space, and you know first hand how I got that second novel rewritten and am starting something new. To a certain extent, it is as Ben suggests, a time management question. I know you know that once you get on a roll, once you hit a stride, once you become any number of other metaphors for getting the creative juices flowing, it gets easier. It's also so much easier when you have a real world deadline like a graduate degree or an agent request. Have you noticed all your editing projects have come with deadlines????

    I could say all this to you in person, but this commenting on a blog is pretty cool.

    Now go write something.

  6. Thanks so much for all the thoughtful posts on the subject. It was very helpful to hear what you guys think about the idea. Helpful and inspiring.

    Ben – It made my day to hear from you :) You could have been posting about Dune, Spice and the Bhagavad Gita and it would have made me smile just as much.

    I think you’re right to question the question itself. Even asking the question of writing vs editing is somewhat telling of my state of mind. I liked your thoughts about being part of the science/engineering world without necessarily loving the hands-on in the lab stuff. It’s an excellent distinction and I agree that it’s really all part of the same thing and you just enjoy a different aspect of it.

    James – Thank you for the huge vote of confidence!

    Will – Yes! This is it exactly! You nailed my inner debate perfectly. I am selfishly glad to hear that you went through the same thing. I loved your insight about how becoming an editor wasn’t a “betrayal” of your life goal so much as it was a transmutation. Great point. And, I know from experience that you are a top-notch editor. Your students are lucky to have you for a mentor.

    Jen – I agree with you pretty much 100%. I was having the “once I can get my lazy ass back into it, it’ll be easier” discussion last night, actually. You’re so right about that. Creation begets more creation. Words flow faster and ideas come one on top of the other the more immersed in a project I am.

    I think the only way to answer the real question, which is, “am I going to write a novel at this exact point in my life,” will be to try to get past the initial hurdle of getting back into the book and see if that’s what I want to be doing.

  7. I hope you don't mind, but I'm experimenting with whether I can post with my Google account.

    Whatever you need to help get you past that initial hurdle . . . that's what I'm here for!

  8. This is my first visit and this post got me thinking as well. My first thought is, "It's ok to like editing." My personal opinion is you can be both. Writing is your passion, editing fills some of that when you aren't doing the actual writing. If you are a great editor, then you may find you really enjoy it. It sounds just as fun to help someone else on their journey. As I just begin teaching my first class at Hesser I think, "I am helping to guide them on their personal journey of self-discovery." It seems similar to what you're doing. When you live your passion through several venues I say, "More power to you!!"