Why I do what I do, illuminated by the words of Robert Olen Butler

Jan 16 2015

The point of revision is to find meaning. You revise to clarify the meaning of something. You understand, I’m doing this terrible artificial thing, to be forgotten instantly, giving you a little analytical summary to show what’s going on here in the moment. The moment is the point…

taken from the Robert Olen Butler‘s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction

Yes, that’s it exactly. Even though I may labor away doing a “terribly artificial” thing that’s “forgotten instantly”—and is never thought of at all by those who benefit from the end product—it’s important to me because it’s a quest for meaning in every moment of a text. And each discrete moment, at the precise moment it is experienced by a reader, is the most important moment in the life of the work.


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Self-Editing Master Class: Punctuating Dialogue

Jan 04 2015

Whenever I talk about my work with groups of college students or writers, I always get asked what common errors I see in the manuscripts I edit. I’m turning the answer to this question into a new segment here, which I’m calling Self-Editing Master Class (SEMC). I hope it helps to serve as a refresher or as a checklist for you, to help you make your manuscript the best it can be before you submit it for publication.

Welcome to the first installment: punctuating dialogue.

The basic rules

You probably remember the basic rules of punctuating dialogue from high school English class.

  1. At the end of a line of dialogue, you should use a comma rather than a period before a dialogue tag, and it goes inside the closing quotation marks. The first letter of the first word in the dialogue tag is lowercase.
    “English grammar is fun to learn,” your teacher insisted.
  2. If your line of dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation point, those are not replaced with a comma, but they also belong inside the quotation marks.
    “English grammar is fun to learn!” your teacher insisted.
    “Don’t you think English grammar is fun to learn?” your teacher asked.
  3. If the dialogue tag comes in the middle of a sentence, commas should be used around the tag.
    “English grammar is fun to learn,” your teacher insisted, “if you don’t let it stress you out.”
  4. Sidebar rule: Every time a different character speaks, a new paragraph should be started.
    “English grammar is fun to learn,” your teacher insisted.
    “Actually, it sort of stresses me out,” Bobby offered.
    “I bet it wouldn’t be so bad if you actually studied once in a while, Bobby,” Sue teased.

Here’s where it gets a little trickier…

Beyond mistakes to the basics, a common error I see is sentences tacked on to dialogue that aren’t actually dialogue tags; instead, they’re separate actions not directly related to speech.

Now, it’s true that just using “he said” and “she said” over and over can get a little boring, and it’s tighter writing to say something like “she insisted,” rather than “she said insistently.” But words like, for example,  insisted, exclaimed, and inquired are all just descriptive synonyms for said or asked.

When the verb in the sentence after the line of dialogue is an action other than said or asked—something like laughed, or pointed, or smiled—you need to start a new sentence. For example,

“English grammar is fun to learn.” The teacher smiled. (Here, you can’t technically smile a spoken sentence, so it’s not a dialogue tag; it’s descriptive action.)

Contrast this with: “English grammar is fun to learn,” the teacher said with a smile. (Here, you use the punctuation for a tag, because said is the verb.)

Another example: “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to keep the rules straight.” Bobby sighed. (You can’t technically sigh out a sentence.) and “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to keep the rules straight,” Bobby said with a sigh.

Some editors do let sighed go, along with verbs like grunted and huffed and laughed, arguing that they describe the tone of the speech, but my advice is, when in doubt, ask yourself if the character could technically say the sentence using the verb given. For example, a mafia goon could possibly grunt a one-word response to his boss (“Yeah,” he grunted.) but he couldn’t grunt an entire sentence, right?

Master class

One of my favorite rules in the Chicago Manual of Style (yes, I’m nerdy enough that I have favorite rules) is the one for sudden breaks in speech. For those of you following along at home, it’s rule 6.84. Getting this right is sure to blow your editor’s geeky little mind.

Here’s my paraphrase: If a character performs an action in the middle of a line of dialogue, the action is set off by em dashes, which go outside the quotation marks. (For those of you who haven’t discovered the em dash, this most glorious bit of punctuation, it’s the dash that’s usually autoformatted by Word when you type two hyphens together. I can also be found in the Symbols menu or created with alt + 0151 on the number pad of a PC. For a Mac, it’s Command + Option + a hyphen.)

This is what it looks like:

“These grammar rules are confusing”Billy pointed at his English book“and I don’t think I’ll ever learn them all.”

I often see a line like this tacked on as tag: “These grammar rules are confusing,” Billy pointed to his book, “and I don’t think I’ll ever learn them all.” But because the “tag” is action and not speech, Chicago favors em dashes to set it off.

This is also handy if you want to note a change in tone or describe the way a line is delivered in a more in-depth way:

“English grammar is fun to learn”—the rise in her vocal pitch betrayed her excitement—”if you don’t let it stress you out!”

Kinda cool, huh? Once you learn the sudden break rule, you’ll notice it in books you read and you’ll find it useful in your own writing.

Gotta question about anything I covered here? Feel free to post it below!


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Voice: The Literary Game Changer

Dec 12 2014

As a freelance book editor, I’ve spent countless hours with manuscripts of every ilk—from fairly tidy OCR files of out-of-print bestsellers to piles of interview transcriptions loosely tacked together by chapter numbers—and I approach them all with a dual mind-set. On one hand, I’m scrutinizing as an editor, looking for things that are incomplete, incorrect, inconsistent, or confusing. On the other, I’m functioning as a fresh-eyed beta reader for the author, approaching the story just as a bookstore browser would.

As I’m editing, my analytical mind is constantly checking in with this beta reader, asking questions like, “Am I bored yet? If so, why, and at what point did I start to lose interest? If not, why not? Am I eager to keep reading?” This line of questioning is partly self-serving—as a writer myself, I’m always looking to learn from other writers—and partly professional. After all, I can’t articulate what a writer needs to do to improve his book if I can’t answer the ultimate question: “Why is this not working?”

What makes a novel or memoir “work” may seem like some kind of muse-gifted ethereal je ne sais quoi, something you either have or you don’t, but I think the answer is much simpler (at least in naming if not in execution): The difference between a story that’s spellbinding and one that falls flat is voice.

So what is voice?

In memoir, it’s the difference between reportage (first this happened, and then this happened, and then he said this…) and storytelling, which uses fictive techniques like character and dialogue and plot. In other words, it’s the difference between reading a police report and talking to an eyewitness while standing at a crime scene. To illustrate my point, go read the Wikipedia entries for Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, and then read a few chapters of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Or curl up with a cup of tea and the CDC statement on the Ebola pandemic and then check out Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone.

As I used to tell my freshman composition students, in order to be rhetorically effective, your essay needs to have the pathos (emotion), as well as the ethos (authority) and logos (facts). Along with this sacred literary trinity, there also must be a distinct and compelling narrator. The narrator doesn’t have to be a character but it does need to have a presence in the story. That’s why I call the sum of all these elements voice—when they’re working together, the reader should hear the narrative in her head, should forget the fact that she’s seeing rather than hearing the tale.

All this holds true for successful fiction, as well, but because the fiction writer doesn’t have the drama or authority inherent in facts to bolster her story, she needs a little something extra, which I think of as “perspective” or “worldview.” A manuscript can have an imaginative plot and a slew of  characters, but  if the reader begins thinking, Why should I care about this? What does it have to do with me? and perhaps most importantly, Why are you (emphasis intentional) telling me this? the book is pretty much sunk. In the absence of factual authority, or the draw of true crime or a deadly pandemic, the fiction writer has to evoke empathy and offer a fresh perspective on some aspect of humanity. In this case, I think voice is the difference between a crime scene account from an eyewitness and one from the primary suspect. A bystander is going to give us a good account, but the accused can offer so much more depth, on so many more levels.

While some writers definitely “come into” their voice more easily than other writers do, making the process look maddeningly effortless, the good news is that finding and developing your voice is as much a matter of craft as it is art. By reading (and reading and reading and more reading), absorbing, questioning, and analyzing, you can learn the elements of successful voice and begin to apply them to your own work.

When you think about voice in a piece of your own work, I suggest asking yourself these questions:

  • Who is telling this story and why? What perspective do they offer on the story’s themes?
  • Are both internal (character/emotional) and external (plot/action) drama present in the story? If not, how can I rework the story to include the element that’s missing?
  • Is the reader just told what the characters do, or is any introspection offered? In other words, does the reader know what the characters think and feel about what’s going on in the story?

When I visit local universities and talk with young writers, I often get asked what’s the “biggest mistake” I see writers make. I think this is it. Regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, voice is truly the game changer. Problems of plot or character development can be fixed, but if there’s no voice driving the story, it’s difficult for a reader to invest in it mentally or emotionally.

Literature illuminates what it means to be human in a way I think no other art form can. And so in literature, just like in life, who’s speaking and the way in which they’re delivering their message is often just as important as what’s being said.



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The Uninvited Guest

Dec 05 2014

To some, the life of a freelancer might sound like the Sunday-morning version of glamorous: sleeping in, enjoying leisurely meals, only accepting the projects I want to, working in sweatpants, shower be damned.

In truth, the above description constitutes Opposite Day for me. I’m up by 6 a.m. at the latest, I eat and shower quickly as I get the kids ready for their day, I typically work from 9–4 (plus after the kids go to bed and on weekend nights until all hours), I try to say “no” to clients as little as humanly possible (hence the aforementioned schedule), and the sweatpants are a matter of survival rather than sloth (my basement office is freezing in the winter).

But I still love being my own boss—for the ability to spend one Friday morning a month reading to my son’s class, to take the day off when my daughter has a fever or the nanny calls in sick, to know that the only limits to my ability or income are the limits I set for myself—not someone else’s determination of my skill level or their perception of my value as an employee.

It’s not glamorous by any stretch, but I can’t imagine anything more empowering.

However, there is one major drawback to working for myself, which was illuminated for me by a dream I had a few weeks ago in which I crashed a staff meeting at Simon & Schuster.

In order to communicate how bizarre this dream was, you must know that (1) I’ve never visited the offices of Simon & Schuster (couldn’t even tell you the address), (2) I know no one who works there, (3) I have no idea what a staff meeting there is like, so the entire scene was fabricated by my subconscious.

So Dream Simon & Schuster looked suspiciously like the Library Hotel in NYC but with a lot of exposed brick. In my dream, I knew I was crashing and I was simultaneously terrified of being recognized as Does Not Belong Here and also hoping to be identified as Obviously One of Us. I somehow found my way through a maze of conference rooms and into The Big Staff Meeting, which was filled to capacity with not just editors, designers, sales people, and marketing & publicity folks (like the title-design, cover-design, and publishing-board meetings of my WD days) but also agents, critics, and writers.

At first I was a wallflower, just anxiously taking in the scene, but then for some reason we were broken into small groups and I started talking to the people at my table about the projects I was working on now . . .

My two-year-old daughter yelled for me the way she does every morning (“Hellooooo? Is anybody there? Helllooooo?”) and I bolted awake, feeling thrilled by my book nerd’s lit’rary fantasy . . . and also kinda sad. There was no great gathering of My People, no convo with kindred souls. And it hit me: sometimes I really, really miss being part of a team.

Tonight I spent an hour on the phone with a memoirist, just talking about his life, the possibilities for the manuscript he just completed, and how I might be of service to him. When we hung up, I got that post-Dream S & S rush, with none of the letdown, because I was reminded that this is my favorite part of my job.

Catching embarrassing mistakes and polishing prose is a lot of fun for me. But this . . . this profoundly human element, the connection of shared understanding, the collaboration to create art, the common goal of bringing something unique and wonderful to the world, this is why making books is different from making widgets, why the market can only commodify these creations so much before missing the whole damn point.

Author + Editor (+ Agent—can’t forget you guys <high five>). Strategizing, crafting, perfecting. My idea of a dream team.

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“Mommy, What Are All These Papers?”

Nov 29 2014

This afternoon while my two-year-old napped, I tried to get a jump on next week by holing up in my room with my laptop and the PDFs for the latest edition of Public Health Reports, a government medical journal. Spread out around me were the different sections of the journal’s style guide. I was happily clicking along when my five-year-old walked in.

“Mommy, what are all these papers?”

My son knows I’m an editor, that I help to make books and magazines, and that sometimes I have to write about funny stuff like toilet paper or awesome stuff like Thomas the Tank Engine. He even proudly told a schoolmate’s mother that his mom was “an awful”—to her horror—until she realized from the context of their conversation that he was trying to say “an author” (a word he’d recently learned on Sesame Street—you rocked that vocab word, by the way, Lauren Graham).

I could tell by the look on his face today that he wanted to know more, to understand better what I do all day and why. So I took a stab at breaking down my career choice in a way a preschooler could understand it. The explanation came out quite easily, and it even surprised me a little.

I explained to him that I like being an editor because, to my mind, it’s like a game or a puzzle. All those papers he saw spread out around me are like the rules of the game, and the fun is pushing my brain to remember all the rules and then making sure they’re followed in whatever I’m reading. It’s like the classic “Look and Look Again” game from his Highlights magazine. If I can identify all the things that are missing, I “win,” because I’ve helped complete the author’s puzzle.

I guess it was a good answer, because he listened intently, nodded, and then said, “I want to be an editor.”

“It’s a cool job, but you really have to like reading, because that’s pretty much what I do all day.”

“I love to read,” he enthused. Then, his attention already spent, he bounded back out of the room.

It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me whether my son becomes an editor, or follows in his father’s more technologically inclined footsteps, or finds a completely different path for himself. But a part of me does feel proud that even at his age, he recognizes the attraction of and value in my work, and if I’ve been able to instill (and continue to nurture) in him a love of reading, I guess that’s the biggest win of all.

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“My Writing Needs Help … But What Kind?”

Nov 24 2014

Seeking the help of an editor can be a lot like taking your car into the shop: you know enough about your work to realize it doesn’t sound quite right when it starts, or the shimmying in the middle is a sign of trouble, or it flat-out breaks down at the end. Or maybe it’s polished to a high shine in your eyes, but every time you take it out into the world, warning lights come on.

In other words, you know something’s up, but you have only a vague idea (or, it’s okay to be honest, absolutely no idea) what to do to fix it.

Stereotypes about women and mechanical things aside, I always feel more confident calling my mechanic when I at least know the right jargon. There’s dignity in saying, “I think my fan belt is loose” rather than “When I hit the gas, it goes squeeeee, like a pig is being jabbed by something really sharp under the hood.”

Though I’ll leave car diagnosis to reruns of the Tappet Brothers (RIP, Tom Magliozzi), I can clarify some editorial jargon. Before you approach an editor for help with your manuscript—or before you embark on the exciting publishing journey with the editors at your publishing house—here’s what you need to know about what he or she can do for you.

Developmental edit: Think of this as the “big picture” edit. A developmental editor is concerned with issues of content: Is the manuscript complete and organized logically? Is any material missing, out of order, or repetitive? Is the overall work uneven—with some sections weaker (or slower, in terms of plot pacing) than others? Are the plot and characters fully developed? Does the book achieve the goals it sets out to, or deliver what it promises the reader?

What will I get from a developmental edit? At this stage, the editor reads through the entire book and makes detailed notes, which are presented to you in the form of an editorial letter. In this letter, your editor asks very targeted questions, which attempt to draw additional material out of you or guide you to clarify or refine existing material, and makes specific suggestions for moving, expanding, or combining content (be it paragraphs or chapters). You may also receive a copy of your manuscript containing some higher-level edits (using Word’s Track Changes feature) as well as marginal comments and queries.

Is this what I need? If you have concerns about your manuscript’s organization or the completeness of its content, or if your story feels stalled out or just “not quite there” and you don’t know why, this is the edit for you.

Line edit: Once a manuscript’s been developed to the satisfaction of the author and editor, the next step is the line edit. In this stage, all or most of the content should be in place; the line editor is looking for consistency of tone and style and for inconsistencies in plot or character.

Because things may have moved during the developmental phase, the line editor’s “fresh eyes” can catch any errors that may have been introduced—like the same paragraph appearing more than once—or details that may have been overlooked (e.g., the main character is sometimes Rachel and other times Rachael, or her eye color is blue in chapter 1 and green in chapter 7) while bigger issues were being addressed. The line editor also makes fixes to things like grammar, punctuation, and style (usually according to the Chicago Manual of Style, though every house has their own preferences) though this is still not the primary focus of this round of editing.

What will I get from a line edit? At this stage, you’ll certainly get a manuscript that’s been edited using Track Changes and that contains many queries and suggestions in marginal comments, along with an editorial letter that outlines (and elaborates on) those queries and comments.

Is this what I need? If you’ve already been through several drafts of your manuscript and you feel confident that it’s complete but you need a comprehensive read-through and feedback for tightening up, this is the edit you need.

Copy edit: Now we’re starting to get to the nitty-gritty. The copy editor is your eagle eye for matters of grammar, punctuation, and style, and she also fact-checks all proper names, places, dates, and other areas where a simple typo could cause major embarrassment.

What will I get from a copy edit? A manuscript that’s been edited using Track Changes, and may also contain some queries and suggestions in marginal comments, if she catches something the others missed. (Never underestimate the power of fresh eyes!) Copy editors also typically create a style sheet that records character, place, and brand names and any exceptions to the style guide that were retained in the manuscript; this is so the proofreader doesn’t come along and, say, change every instance of “okay” to “OK” (in keeping with Merriam-Webster preference) after the author has already expressed a preference for the former.

Is this what I need? If your manuscript’s already been edited and all beta reader feedback is positive and you just need that final polish before sending it out into the world, this is the edit for you.

Proofread: Generally speaking, this stage is only needed for books that are about to be published; the proofreader looks at a PDF of the typeset galley or, for an ebook, a type-styled Word document. The proofreader is looking for typos (repeated words, missing words, duplicated or dropped punctuation, miskeyed words that spell check won’t pick up [like “no” for “not” or “know”]), grammar or spelling errors that might have slipped by the other editors, and inconsistencies between the galley and the style sheet, and is checking the elements of the book’s layout (column alignment, type styles applied, correct headers and footers, correct page references, proper line and page breaks).

Because the book is pretty clean and ready to go at this point, the proofreader’s eye is free enough that it can often catch content mistakes, too. While doing proofreads for reprint editions, I’ve found mistakes that slipped through and were published in the original editions—inconsistent character name spellings, illogical action (like a character closing a car door twice in the same scene between lines of dialogue), and misspelled brand names. Again, fresh eyes are invaluable!

What will I get from a proofread? A book that’s ready to enter the world!

Is this what I need? Only once all other edits are complete and you’re preparing to publish the work.

I hope this breakdown has helped to take some of the guesswork out of finding the right kind of editor for your manuscript. While it’s certainly not as complicated as the inner workings of the combustion engine, at times it can feel every bit as intimidating. But it doesn’t need to be. The successful editorial process should begin with a conversation in which all expectations are clarified and recorded, and that’s the key to ensuring your editorial partnership works like a well-oiled machine.

If you’re an editor at a publishing house and there’s something that works differently on your team—or something I forgot or that you would like to add—please post a comment or message me so I can make this post as accurate as possible. If you’re a writer and this post inspired additional questions about the process or terminology, please let me know what you’d like to know and I’ll address it in another post. Thanks!

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The Most Unwittingly Hurtful Thing a Writer Ever Said to Me

Nov 15 2014

“So … uh, those who can’t write, edit, huh?”

I just stared at the man, because I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to respond.

We were at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City, the day before my first BookExpo America, and I’d just finished sitting on a panel with my coworkers Alice Pope (Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market), Robert Brewer (Writer’s Market), and Jane Friedman (our editorial director), taking rapid-fire questions about writing and publishing for more than an hour in a packed auditorium.

My adrenaline was still pumping as I stepped down from the dais to greet a small group who’d assembled, waiting for me to answer even more questions, presumably the ones they were too nervous to ask in front of the group. I took a deep breath and put every ounce of energy and warmth I had into the smile I presented them.

Lemme tell you, I was ON. This was one of my favorite parts of my job at WDB: talking to writers one-on-one, helping them to feel a little less intimidated by the submissions process, doing my best to use what I’d learned so far to give informed advice and often-needed encouragement. And being rewarded with the looks of relief and renewed excitement and determination when they left one of our sessions. (After all, isn’t that the whole point of going to a writers’ conference? To remember you’re not alone in this crazy writing biz and that the hours you spend in front of the computer, all by yourself, are not a waste of your life?)

Then, this man. And this comment. Delivered with a confusing combination of sheepishness and smirk, like he needed my reaction to determine whether his question was clever or clumsy.

I wasn’t sure what he was really asking me. Was he trying to upset me? Was this, like, the absolute worst writer’s conference pickup line ever?

I’m not telling you this story to snark. (I already promised you this would be a snark-free zone, and I have no interest in being catty nearly a decade after this happened.) I’m writing about this moment here, now, because it still bothers me.

At the time, I think I ratcheted up my smile a few more notches and bulldozed forward, chattering something about the two being entirely different skill sets (which I do think is true: see last post about the Left Brain/Right Brain battle).

But from time to time, his face and his words resurface, and I spend some time with what might be my ickiest professional fear: Is there a tiny grain of truth to what he said?

Logically, I know there is not. For a few reasons:

  1. Any editor out there (or published author who’s been edited) can tell you that, depending on the author we’re working with and the stage of editing we’re at (more on this next week), (re)writing is somewhere between 25% and 85% of what an editor does.We rewrite sentences that are convoluted or awkward; we fix misplaced modifiers and unclear antecedents. We write transitions between paragraphs and scenes when they’re needed. And, yes, sometimes we even have to finish writing the book when an author just flat-out tires and gives up…and we still have a publication deadline to meet.
  2. There is absolutely no way an editor—especially a developmental editor—can be effective at giving an author direction on plot, pacing, character development, etc., without having a firm understanding of how those elements work together and how to construct each of them.
  3. The laundry list of editors who’ve also published successful books is astounding. In fact, it’s getting to the point where it seems like more editors have published than haven’t. (Way to go, guys!) And why should this come as a surprise? When your life is devoted to creating literature, at some point you might be compelled to break from working on others’ stories and start devoting your love and energy to your own.
  4. Having worked with many amazing teachers in many disciplines during my eighteen years of schooling, “Those who can’t do, teach,” is as silly as it is insulting to the great minds of education who slave away with little thanks and little pay. I assume this was the basis for the man’s assessment of editors, and if I remember Philosophy 101 correctly, no truth can be derived from a false premise.

But in my emotional, illogical heart, his “clever” dig excavated through the layers of my schooling and experience and hit that insecure nerve: Maybe I’m not cut out to be a writer.

I think that’s the fear that was at the heart of his question. Perhaps he was trying to knock me off my dais—negate my “insider” status and reduce me to the same insecurity he was feeling.

His motive isn’t really important to me, though. The comment stung, but I’m actually grateful for it now. Because it’s been there, in the back of my mind all these years, baiting me, pushing me to prove it’s not true.

And it’s also caused me to realize that as much as I love the art and craft of writing, I adore editing for reasons unique to its own craft. I’m not an editor because I’m a failed writer; I’m an editor because I derive just as much pleasure from collaborating with another writer to make their work go from shiny to dazzling as I do creating my own shiny prose.

Editing is the ultimate writing test. Sometimes it’s a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes it’s an exercise in translation. Sometimes it’s a group hug. Sometimes it’s a hostage negotiation. But always, always at its core is the story, the paragraph, the word.

And that’s why, what I should have said to Mr. Unwittingly Hurtful Writer’s Conference Attendee was this: When I’ve done a good job as an editor, the writer can’t tell my words from her own.

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Shhh … It’s HER Turn Now

Nov 08 2014

I get nervous every time I sit down at my computer to write. It doesn’t matter if I’m crafting a donor appeal letter, a social media marketing campaign, an editorial letter to an author, a short story of my own—even this inaugural blog post. Writing, crafting a perfect piece of language, is my passion, and the flip side of that passion is fear.

I’ve spent some time thinking about writing—why I do it, why I don’t do it more often, why I only allow myself time for the writing someone else is paying me to do—in preparation for this post. Specifically, plumbing and analyzing my fear. And I think I’ve hit upon the heart of it: What makes me an effective editor is also what makes me a slow, timid writer: that insistence on perfection, the cultivating of lightning-quick analysis, the default mode of problem solving.

Every time my creative Right Brain tries to speak up—“What if…?”—her twin sister, analytical Left Brain, silences her, with fingernails digging into her arm and a glare that means “Don’t you dare say something stupid and embarrass me.”

I appreciate Left Brain so much—she’s worked tirelessly to give me my dream career—but her confidence has gone to her head and she’s become a bit of a bully. As nonconfrontational as I am, there’s no one to put her in her place except me.

In her gorgeously insightful book The Mind of Your Story (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008), my friend Lisa Lenard-Cook illuminates why our best ideas come when we’re doing mundane tasks like driving, showering, or folding laundry:

Thinking … is a left-brain activity, and when it’s particularly all-consuming, which it is when you’re frantic, right brain can’t get a word—or in right brain’s case, an image—in edgewise. But as soon as you engage left brain in a less stressful activity … right brain takes the opportunity to—nyah! nyah!—let you know it knew the answer all along. … [W]hen you engage left brain in an endeavor that requires its focus, right brain can send its images over without left brain trying to interpret (or censor) them in its own distinct way.

I don’t think my experience is unique; lots of writers feel the anxiety of striving for perfection in each sentence. But I think my anxiety is escalated into the realm of fear because I’ve made the quest for perfection literally my job.

It’s been to my advantage to let Left bully Right—staying in analytical mode so I can help the authors I work with find solutions to their story problems—but more and more, I’m feeling like I’m only half the writer/editor I could be.

So here’s my very public challenge to myself (and to you, if you need it): Right now, whatever you’re working on, consciously stop self-editing. Even if you have to back Left Brain into the corner, one finger poke to her chest at a time, or distract her by sorting, washing, and folding every last piece of laundry in your house, make her take the day (or even an hour) off.

Give your creative Right Brain a chance to make connections between those ideas you’ve been obsessing over (also an idea from Lisa, so seriously, find her book and read it, ’cause it’s amazing) and then take a deep breath, sit down at the keyboard, and let her voice—which is really your voice—come through.

Next up, I’ll share with you the most unwittingly hurtful thing a writer ever said to me at a conference. (It was more than a handful of years ago, and it still bothers me to this day.)

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