Writing Mode vs. Editing Mode

There’s a lot of writing advice out there that says you have to write every day to be successful. And while I’m all for self-discipline, (although I suck at it), this strategy just doesn’t work for me. Partly because sometimes, (often, actually), my muse takes a sick day, (or fourteen), preferring to sip margaritas on a beach somewhere rather than coming to work, and sometimes, my characters stamp their feet like petulant little children and refuse to cooperate, resulting in a stalemate of blank pages. But mostly, it’s because I never know which half of me is going to roll out of bed in the morning, the writer or the editor.

I think most authors would agree that writing consists of two modes: Writing Mode and Editing Mode. Two sides to the same coin, neither exists without the other, and yet they require vastly different parts of the brain. Writing Mode is reliant on imagination, slave to inspiration and the whims of muses, and is an organic, joyous process (most of the time). Editing Mode is much more analytical in nature, coming from a place of logic and fact rather than emotion. Sounds like the age-old argument about English and Math, no? But the truly fascinating part is that, while each mode compliments the other, it is nearly impossible to utilize both at the same time. At least for me.

I am one of those perfectionist people that perennially edits as I write. I can’t just glom my thoughts onto the page in a horrific ramble of word vomit and call it good. Which, I realize, is in direct contradiction to one of the Cardinal Rules of Writing. If you remember, I already wrote about this inability to barrel headlong through a rough draft without looking back– in my rant about Perfectionism. What does this have to do with the two modes of writing? Well, it means that quite frequently, I suffer from the bipolar nature of the process and flip-flop between the two. Which is how I know that you can’t do both at the same time. At least, not fully. You can tweak little things during the creation part, but a complete overhaul-style edit will derail any hopes you had of being creative that day.

Why does it happen this way? I have no idea. My theory is that when you start to edit, the part of your brain responsible for problem solving takes over, chasing away those little fairies of creative thought much like waking up chases away dreams. Editing is like working on a puzzle, each piece carefully weighed and inspected to make sure it fits with the others. It’s not fun, (well, for most people) and it’s not glamorous. More than any other part, it feels like work. It’s one of the only times in writing when you have to conform to rules, and for a lot of people, it starts to feel like an administrative chore. You never hear anyone say they enjoy paying bills, or filing taxes, right? Well, I would hazard that there are a lot of writers out there that put editing into that same category of painful-but-necessary tasks.

Writing Mode, on the other hand, is fun, and can sometimes be glamorous, (if you’re not me and aren’t instantly and completely mortified by the drivel you just put down, amazed that anything that crappy could have come from the beautiful vision in your head).  There’s something magical in the process of creation, a freedom in the cathartic expression of emotion. And, like dreams, there really are no rules. This is the part where you’re free to wander down whatever strange, nonsensical paths your muse sees fit. There’s no worry because you know you can just fix it later. (Again, unless you’re me, and you get stuck like a broken record until you get a scene right.)

I think it’s this disconnect between the two that prevents them from being called upon simultaneously. Creativity can feel like a direct link to the subconscious, channeling beauty from places even the artist might not be able to define. Editing is too grounded in reality, too centered around order and precision to allow for that much unknown. Which leaves every author with two alter-egos, the writer and the editor. And like Jekyll and Hyde, you can’t always predict which one will show up when.

The good thing about having these two halves of the process is that when one doesn’t work, the other often does. When inspiration fades, (and let’s face it, uninspired days happen), you can still be productive. Even if editing is as painful as a root canal for you. It’s easier to do it in small chunks than one massive 15-hour surgery at the end, when you have thousands of words to mutilate and butcher. (Unless you plan to hire someone like me to hack your baby into pieces for you.)

Of course, not every writer is gifted with equal amounts of talent in each mode. Some are brilliant creatively, but horrible editors. Some are masters of grammar and actually enjoy editing, (me! me!), but find creating to be like pulling teeth. And some are lucky enough to toe the line between the two. Which are you?


2 thoughts on “Writing Mode vs. Editing Mode

  1. Kisa
    Your editing nightmare sounds exactly like mine. I am so obsessed with grammar and spelling that I have to fix every sentence before I can move on. These days my fingers move faster than my brian so I often mis-spell words (*brain) due to simple mis-typing.
    And I am unable to leave that eror behind. I am compelled (*error) to fix it rather than go back and trwl through the utter mess that will result.
    But you’re right (*trawl), editing and writing are worlds, or at least hemispheres apart. Our right and left brains don’t always agree on what’s best, creating an internal conflict that can leave us…well, conflicted.
    Enjoy the writing, put up with the seemingly endless editing and think of it as the price or glamour.

    • Thanks so much for commenting! I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

      I wish I had the problem of my brain moving faster than my fingers. I’ve found that I’m much more adept at editing, which makes writing feel like pulling teeth, every word/scene/chapter a painful extraction that takes far longer than I would like. But that’s how it goes. We each have our strengths. If I wasn’t so filled with the desire to tell my own stories, I’d say I missed my calling as an editor. But that’s the beauty of freelance– maybe I can still be both. 😉

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