You know when you’re typing, and there is a misspelled word with red squiggles, and the person hovering over your shoulder whispers,
“Go back. You spelled it wrong.”
Yeah? I’ll let you in on a little secret.
Don’t go back. Never go back to the words with squiggly lines until after you’ve written all the words. These voices that hang and hover over our heads as we write couldn’t be more wrong about the correct way to write.
Write. Then edit. There’s freedom and fullness of meaning in this practice.
Peter Elbow, a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes,
Your editorial instinct is often much better developed than your producing instinct, so that as each phrase starts to roll off your pencil, you hear seventeen reasons why it is unsatisfactory. The paper remains blank. Or else there are a series of crossed out half-sentences and half-paragraphs.Writing Without Teachers
And he’s right.
Deep within all of us, there is an intricate intermingling of instinct and insecurity—feelings of incompetence, even fears of inability or lack of intelligence. These layers reveal themselves through our impulse to edit as we write; desperate attempts to quickly make better the bad we think we’re creating.
Instead of letting these instincts and insecurities lead the way, how about leaning into and leveraging them for good and growth? How about looking at the presence of imperfection in our writing as opportunity for refinement rather than a verdict of value or ability or worth?
To write, freely and fully, and only then to see your unfinished work as an invitation to further fine-tune the message in your heart.
Then and only then, after you have finished writing, should you edit. Here are a few essential and easy ways to practice this.
- Space. Hold space between writing and going back to look over what you’ve written. After some time, your eyes will adjust to recognize the good and what sticks out as unnecessary or amiss.
- Read Aloud. Don’t whisper under your breath and don’t read to yourself in your head. Read aloud, and as you roll the tongue, you’ll catch the wonky wording and grammatical errors. Sound has a surprising way of stripping what is not in favor or harmonious.
- Kill your darlings. Unwittingly attributed to Stephen King but originating from William Faulkner is this bit of truth that means by editing and eliminating some of the words and ideas you’ve created and come to love, you are able to let go of the bulk or “fluff” of it and, in turn, unearth better depth and clarity.
No more hiding from writing, or hesitating to push publish. No more editing as you go and losing track of the meaning you genuinely wanted portray. No more hiring an editor every time you write a blog post which, by the way, you’ve yet to put out there because, #perfection.
In writing, there is no such thing as perfect. There is only patience in the process of writing, and then returning to edit with the courage to put it out there; trusting it is as refined as it can be.
Imperfect, but wildly, bravely refined.