Featured From the Archives: Writing Mode vs. Editing Mode

Before we get to this week’s installment, I’d like to thank everyone who read, commented, and shared my post from last Friday. Your support was unexpected and very appreciated. Things have been largely fixed and improve daily, but I’m still struggling to fully rekindle that creative spark. So you’ll have to forgive me for dredging up an older article this week. I think (well, hope) that this will still be relevant to many out there, though it would more aptly fit my scenario to talk about what happens when neither mode works. Maybe that’ll be a task for another day. In the meantime, enjoy!

Writing Mode vs. Editing Mode

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 10/5/12

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 (though 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 who put editing into that same category of painful-but-necessary tasks. (In fact, I know there are.)

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. (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 personalities, 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, after all, than deal with one massive fifteen-hour surgery at the end, where 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?


6 thoughts on “Featured From the Archives: Writing Mode vs. Editing Mode

  1. When I get into the flow of writing, it’s marvellous and can go on for hours. I make only the most necessary corrections in the first draft…get the story down first. When I have the first draft, I go back as an editor. It feels like a different part of my brain, it flows, but with a different feel. Then the next week, I read though and make changes large and small as a writer; do the character seem real? Reiterate as needed. End with dedicated edits, at least three spaced a couple weeks or so apart – longer spans for longer books. I guess I’m one of the odd schizophrenic ducks that can BE a creative or BE meticulous whenever needed. I think I learned how to do that at my job writing technical procedures that needed to be in use yesterday.

    • That may be true, but you also described a systematic switching between the two tasks, not unlike the way I break up rounds of edits for clients. Do you ever actually do them both simultaneously? As in, you edit the story as it’s being created? I’ve yet to meet someone who actually can. Most of us, myself included, need to have at least a foundation down before we can switch gears. If you can, then kudos, you’re the first! 😉

  2. The creative part of me loves to write! The boring part of me can handle the tediousness of editing because it requires a different type of effort . It provides a break from the manic, creative spin.

    My problem is that the boring part of me seems to extinguish the fun, interesting writer in me. I lose my voice. I become rigid. Facts become factual and experiences lose their luster.

    HOW do you find an editor that can mirror your voice and correct all of your issues?

    • Well, in your case, I suspect you’ll need to hire one. Not every great writer is good at editing, and not every editor is a great writer. So the trick is figuring out what your strengths are and then finding the editor that compliments them. Most professional editors (myself included) should be able to mimic your voice while still fixing any grammar issues. But you need what I call a storyteller editor. If you find someone who’s sole strength is grammar, you won’t get the finesse you’re looking for. I wrote about this distinction here:

      My advice to you is to request sample edits from anyone you’re scouting, as that will show you real quick who has the ability to keep your voice intact and who will strip it in the name of grammar. Good luck! 🙂

  3. I’m definitely more of an editor- I edit as I write, like you. I can be creative and inventive, but my real skill has always been in taking something an putting a twist on it or making it better, whether it’s a story or a rocket.

    • Funny, I say the same. Which is probably why I found my way into editing and still have yet to finish a novel. Lol. Fortunately for you, I believe you’ve done the latter, yes? Any plans to pursue the former?

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