Writing as an editor

Some of you may have seen on Twitter that something very exciting happened to me this week. I passed the 40k mark of my work in progress, which means that technically, if you go by the very minimum measurement, it will be an actual novel.

I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I originally thought that Wings, the novelette I published last year (and, you know, if you wanted to, like, buy it or something, I suppose I can’t stop you), would be a novel, but it turned out to be only 15,000 words long.

Those 15,000 words took me more than 5 years to write. Now, everyone writes at their own pace, and there are no rules when it comes to writing speeds, and all of that, but by most standards, except maybe George RR Martin’s, that’s … pretty slow.

I can put a lot of the slowness down to the fact that over those five years I had a job and two small children, and then I had slightly less-small children but was setting up a business. I can also put a lot of it down to the existence of Twitter.

But I think some of the reason I always struggle to get anything written is that my brain works in a certain way. I’m the kind of person who likes to spot problems before they arise. It made me good at my former job (in the planning team of an arts venue, a job that mainly involved figuring out how to cram too many events into not enough spaces). It makes me a good editor – spotting problems is, y’know, kinda important in this profession. It makes me a nightmare to plan exciting projects with, because I’m always that irritating killjoy going “Yeah, but what if this happens … ?”. And it makes me a very tentative writer.

I spend my professional life spotting writing pitfalls and helping authors figure out how to avoid them. The problem is, it can be quite difficult to turn that off when said author is yourself. An occupational hazard of editing is that when you’re reading for pleasure sometimes an error will leap out at you and completely stop you in your tracks. When that happens while you’re writing, it can really derail any momentum you’ve managed to build up. As editors we like to make texts as good as they can be, but if you worry too much about that before the words are even on the page, it’ll take you, say, five years to write 15,000 words.

I doubt I’m the only editor–writer (or would-be writer) who feels this way. So in the hope of helping people like me – and indeed, in the hope of helping me, should I actually decide to listen to my own advice for once – here’s how to turn off your inner editor and get shit down on paper.

Give yourself permission to write crap

I know I usually say to take all writing advice with a fairly hefty pinch of salt, but I can definitely get fully behind this one. It may be true that not everyone has to or wants to write that “shitty first draft”, as Anne Lamott calls it. But for self-critical writers like me, it’s so important to recognise that this is a perfectly valid part of the process. You can’t edit what isn’t there, so sometimes the most important thing is to get something – anything – down on paper. I often have to remind myself of some of the writing holes I’ve helped writers out of – if I can do it with their words, I can do it with my own. But you kinda have to write the words in the first place.

Harness the power of distraction

Sometimes I can’t write when I’m sitting at my desk. That’s where Editor Kia sits, and she’s not allowed to take charge yet. She stops the process moving forward by going back and fixing commas and shit instead of writing anything resembling an actual plot. So sometimes I need to take myself out of her domain. This is when it’s useful to remember that my laptop is capable of moving around the house with me. (Does anyone else who usually works with a laptop on a desk have this weird mental block? No? Just me?) Taking the computer downstairs and watching a film with the kids distracts enough of my brain that the rest of it can get on with some word-vomit. Editor Kia will get to play with it later.

Warm up your writing muscles

Confession – I used to really resent the kinds of writing exercises I found on creative writing courses: character profiles and scene-setting and prompt work and all that. It felt remiss of me to spend my limited writing time working on something that wasn’t my novel. But then I took part in a writing challenge led by an editor friend (the brilliant Sophie Playle). Every day, for ten days, we wrote ten sentences based on a prompt. Writing little snippets of nothing did something very important – it got me into a habit of writing. It became a part of my day, like brushing my teeth or wasting time on Twitter, and once it was, I found that it was much easier to work on the novel, in terms of both finding the time and helping the words to flow.

Then keep them warm

Once you’re in the habit of writing, try your best to stay in it. It’s not always possible, and I’m not one of these YOU MUST WRITE EVERY DAY OR YOU ARE NOT A WRITER people. But habits are far easier to break than they are to form, so if you’ve managed to get into the habit of writing a little every day, then try to keep doing it. Even if it’s a sentence tapped into the notes app of your phone or scribbled on the back of the gas bill, you’re writing SOMETHING.

Join a community

The best thing I ever did for my writing was join a local writers group. We only meet for a couple of hours twice a month, but for those few hours, I’m not an editor who wants to write; I’m a writer, just like them. We’re there for each other with support, advice, and constructive criticism. We’ve even started a ten-sentence challenge on Facebook like the one I mentioned above, so we’re encouraging each other to keep writing. There are countless writing communities online, too, if in-person groups aren’t your thing, so if you’re struggling to motivate yourself, look for a group of people who can help give you that boost.

So, my fellow constant-editing-brain sufferers, I hope some of that is helpful. I suppose I should probably go and write some of that novel now, hey?


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