Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Over-Editing and Self-Esteem

There’s editing and then there is over-editing. All writing needs a pass or two after the initial flurry of composition to edit. Sometimes we’re testing out new skills or techniques that might need more than four or five drafts to get it right. Sometimes we’re asked to edit our work for the benefit of editors and publishers.

And then there are those of us who can’t stop editing.

I think part of it comes from low self-esteem as a writer. It’s easy to rationalize that “Hey, I’m a perfectionist.” Wanting to put forth our best work is what everyone should aim for but compulsive perfectionists, let’s face it, we have self-esteem issues with our writing.

It’s easy to second guess ourselves. Especially when you get feedback from others. We automatically assume that every suggestion made from other people is correct and that we were never right to begin with. After all, look at all of these other, confident, popular writers out there. They write so fast, so well, and people love everything they churn out. And oh yes, there are lots of writers who put out sludge and think they’re all that in spite of their lack of talent and effort. The compulsive perfectionist even regards these people’s suggestions.

All those articles, blogs, and workshops on writing are great to read and attend. We soak up the information as much as everyone else. Inwardly, they torture us. They point out all the many ways we fall short. So we edit, and edit, and edit.

What’s in danger here is not only our self-esteem, but our creativity and talent. We work so hard to try to please everyone that we end up disappointing ourselves the most. We never reach our goals.

What is worse, is most compulsive perfectionists are aware of their problem. All the kind and cheerful words in the world from others don’t remedy the issue. In fact, we tend to doubt the validity of those who actually compliment our writing. We cry buckets when we get negative reviews but those reviewers are so right! What were we thinking? People who say nice things didn’t give us a thorough critique. They probably hate the story too.

I think the trick to taming this over-editing beast is learning and remembering a few things:

1. Don’t take it all so personally. Oh certainly, we’re probably not the type that has a super fragile skin and can’t take any kind of critique. (Remember, we think only the negative ones help us grow and point out all the flaws we have yet to fix so we antagonize ourselves by searching those kind of readers out.) Taking a step back and remembering that no one reaches perfection in their writing helps. Guidelines, style, and popularity evolves over time. Readers don’t all like the same things. Really and truly. It’s not that our stories are so horrible sometimes but rather we haven’t found our audience yet. Finding the right beta readers is probably more of our problem here. We need people who read our genre and who appreciate it.

2. An art professor once told my sister that when you feel your project is done, stop. Don’t add another brush stroke. She said she crossed that line once and added the extra brush stroke. It ruined the painting she was working on.

The same applies to writing. We tweak and cut, and add, and change so much that it’s easy to loose our original vision of our work. So maybe there are a handful of sentences, paragraphs, or even pages that could have used eighty more hours of fine-toothed combing. Maybe we didn’t zap every use of the word “was” or “had” from the manuscript. You know what, readers don’t care. (This references the every day, non-writerly, editorial, or agent-type reader, and especially not anti-passivity zealots.)

There’s an evil in second-guessing ourselves so much. Storylines and plots perish, characters become over-the-top or lackluster, and sometimes we get bored with the very ideas that once excited us.

3. When we get too compulsive it’s probably a good idea to shelve the story for a little while. Take a break. Work on something else, or better yet, throw ourselves into an entirely different type of work or activity. Coming back after a hiatus sometimes lets us see clearly again and even learn to love our stories once more.
We do have talent. Maybe we’re still in beginner stages but the compulsive perfectionist is one that is doing their best to learn and work on their craft. Every writer is different and has a different voice. We need to stop comparing ourselves to everyone else, the good and the bad. And we also need to trust our inner voices even more than all the encouragement or tough love from our beta readers. We’ll get good, worthwhile advice and we’ll also get advice that steers us away from who we are and what our story is supposed to be. We need to grasp onto our self-identity and our story’s identity and then hold tight. The weather will be rough and turbulent.

4. Trends, comparisons, the wrong readers, too much advice—they’re all things that drive us to over-editing. Sometimes it’s best to shut off the internet, avoid the writing group for awhile, and get to know our own skills and the depth of our stories intimately one-on-one. Especially if we’ve fallen into over-editing. Recognizing that we will also make mistakes, fail, and even make a fool of ourselves is part of the process. It gives us perfectionists permission to chill out a bit. These are things that keep us awake at night but they don’t have to.

Get your story done to the best of your current ability and then let it go. It will fly or sink, but you won’t have killed it via an axe-wielding internal editor.

What things drive you to over-editing and how do you combat them?

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