Does Editing Inhibit a Writer’s “Art”?

The short answer is: No. But I suspect you want a more definitive answer about the relationship of writing and editing than that.

Isn’t Writing – not Editing – the true Art?

Pots roasting in a wood kiln

Someone is "editing" their pots!

This depends on your definition of “art.” Let’s divert away from editing the written word to look at a different art for the moment, so we can distance ourselves from the question and think more objectively about this. Everyone would consider the creation of a musical work to be an art. And I’m sure you’d probably agree that the fashioning of a pot out of a lump of clay is also a very hands-on art. Each one springs from the creative mind of the one who produces it.

So what happens to both artistic works before they can be displayed as art? They don’t spring into immediate, full grown existence; there’s a lot of work between the artist’s conception and the finished product. One can argue that the musical piece or the clay pot are art from conception to finished masterpiece. They may be incomplete works of art if they never get finished, but they are the products of artistry all the way through. That means that the decorating, glazing, and firing are all parts of the art. So is the tweaking of the bars of music, the addition of harmonies, and even the tuning of the instrument.

But even if you argue that it’s only the finished piece that’s the actual work of art, you still can’t escape the conclusion. That pot wouldn’t be art at all if it hadn’t been fired. If the firing isn’t “art,” it’s the thing that makes the finished pot into art. If the tuning of the instrument and plotting of harmonies is not art — but only the final music as it’s played — that music wouldn’t exist at all without the polishing and preparation that came before it was played. So what does that say about editing?

Editing is What Makes Words into Art

Tuning up by Nori

"Editing" a piano!

You’ve probably heard aspiring poets saying things like, “My poetry flows from me as my art. The more I tamper with it, the more it loses its inspiration.” These writers believe that whatever flows uncensored from their inspired soul is art; in fact, that’s what supposedly makes it art. Any editing they do would destroy the art, in their opinion.

I’m not sure that poets, any more than the rest of us humans, produce perfection automatically, without any fine-tuning. A couple of friends of mine who are poets almost literally wrestle with their words, rearranging and crafting them until their poems are perfect. And the rest of us word-producers — those of us who write fiction or non-fiction prose — have to treat our art the same way the musicians and potters treat theirs.

This means that our art doesn’t just involve setting down our pearls of wisdom on paper or on the computer screen. It involves editing afterwards. This is the fine-tuning, the glazing and firing, the sculpting and polishing. Editing our words — their meaning, their structure, their flow — isn’t a hindrance to art. It’s this often tedious, mechanical work that turns those words into art.

Does Every Writer Need an Editor?

The short answer is: Yes. And I don’t say that just because I’m an editor myself. The fact is that every one of us falls in love with our own words. They are, after all, our Art.

But sometimes we just get them wrong. Or they don’t quite flow properly. Or we read a paragraph and it seems perfectly clear because we already know what we mean. Yet a total stranger would be scratching their head and wondering what on earth we were talking about.

Proper editing involves getting some distance and objectivity. If we can do that by leaving our work to sit for a few weeks and then coming back to it fresh, that’s fine. But even better is to get someone who can really be objective, who is sitting outside the piece of work altogether, and who will quickly see its flaws. This also means that it’s better if our editor isn’t our best friend or are mother; we need someone who can tell us, “This sentence sounds idiotic,” and won’t be worried about hurting our feelings.

Yes, for us writers, our written works are our art. And just like that clay pot, they don’t become really solid until they’ve gone through the fire. For them to become actual art, they need good, thorough editing.