A Gift to Yourself


Kim Pearson, an author, ghostwriter and editor, shared a wrenching story on Womens Memoirs. Kim’s jolting experience with an art teacher taught her a lesson for life about the importance of doing our best. Although stunned by her teacher’s seemingly appalling behavior, Kim came to see it as a gift – it instilled respect for excellence in her developing mind.

Kim learned a lesson in seconds that I spent years acquiring. I grew up with a mother who insisted that ever stitch in every garment be perfect, and I sewed constantly. I hated her perfectionism at the time, but came to value it later.

That ethic transfers to editing and making my writing the best it can be on any given day. I don’t curl up and die if a typo or missing word occurs in a Forum or blog post, but I’d just about as soon go out in public with my shirt buttoned crooked or jelly on my face as send sloppy writing out into the world. It’s about more than ego and self-respect. I see it as respect and consideration for readers. I want to make my message clear and easy to understand.

It’s a huge challenge to figure out how to balance this message about the importance of respecting your work by polishing it to perfection with the counter one:

Anything you write is better

than writing nothing!

I shout this message from the rafters in classes of new writers. It is often the key to unlocking the fingers of people who were terrorized by teachers earlier in life.

The balance I found turned out to be quite simple and consists of two parts:

Write first, THEN edit.

Suit the polish to the purpose.

Purpose implies choice. Choice is involved in setting the purpose that determines the appropriate level of polish. To illustrate that concept, think of drinking wine. If you just finished unloading the moving van, any clean cup will do the trick quite nicely. If you’re preparing a formal dinner, crystal goblets are in order.

I give my mother full credit for giving me the gift of choice. You can only choose to do less than your best if you know what your best is. I did eventually learn that it was okay to not spend an hour ripping dense stretch stitches to correct a tiny pucker in the sleeves of toddler pajamas. And it’s okay to leave my journal and experimental drafts unedited.

It all boils down to purpose. When she died, Mother left a secret stash of manuscripts covering the first 19 years of her life. Her primary purpose was to complete a draft. If she had taken the time to perfect every word she wrote, she probably wouldn’t have gotten past the age of six. How glad we are that she wrote first, saving the edits for a later that never came. I could do the editing, but I couldn’t write stories from her private memory.

If you write for yourself in a journal, forget about editing. If you decide to share what you wrote with friends or family, make it the best you can within the time you have available. If you write for publication, do whatever it takes to make it glisten and gleam.

Mastering the craft of editing – not just the basics, but also scene, character development, dazzling description and more – may seem daunting, but the time you spend buffing stories often sinks them deeper into your soul and shows you depths you didn’t realize were there. Ultimately the time you spend editing your work is a gift to yourself, not just window dressing.

Write now: pull out an old story and buff it up. Make it the best it can be. Make plans to read a book on the craft of writing or take a class to hone your skills.


Janet Riehl said...

Suit the polish to the purpose. That's a useful slogan!

Janet Riehl

V. Furnas said...

Great post I love that "Anything you write is better than writing nothing."

Sharon Lippincott said...

Janet and V, glad you like the lines. I've been using the one about "Anything you write" forever. I so believe it. It's true if you write for family, and it's even more true if you write for self. Maybe less so for the public.

Amber Lea Starfire said...

Sharon, another great post. I like the balance you've struck (and advocate) between perfection and whatever goes, keeping the end goal in mind.

Kathleen Pooler said...

Sharon,I am amazed at the layers that reveal themselves once I start writing even though initially I don't think what I am writing is significant. It's a process and it begins with that first step. Getting that nugget on paper or screen is the biggest challenge. I love the idea of not having to be perfect. Thanks for another great post!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Kathleen, I know what you mean. I have a couple of scenes I go back and back to. Each time they get richer. I don't have any idea if I'm peeling back the layers to get at the core memory or constructing a new one, but if it's the latter, it's a keeper.