I often get asked how I can be an editor/proofreader and write creatively. How do I switch from analytical precision to free-flowing creativity? One activity seems very left brain, the other right.
When I launched my proofreading and editing business I did wonder at first whether my anal retentiveness and perfectionism when it comes to proofing other people’s writing would hinder my own. Would I still be able to let go? Would I be brave enough to make mistakes and write shitty first drafts? (No worries there, as it turned out.) Would I let myself be swept away by my creative muse, or would I try to beat her over the head with a dictionary and my heavily earmarked copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style?
Switching between Patricia Bell, Editor, and Patricia Bell, Author certainly requires a shift in gear – but it’s easier than I thought.
The two hemispheres of our brain are tied together by bundles of nerve fibres, creating an information highway. Although the two sides function differently, they work together and complement each other. You don’t use only one side of your brain at a time.
Whether you’re performing a logical or creative function, you’re receiving input from both sides of your brain. For example, the left brain is credited with language, but the right brain helps you understand context and tone. The left brain handles mathematical equations, but the right brain helps out with comparisons and rough estimates.
Every time I edit a fiction manuscript, I learn something that can improve my own fiction. When I proofread a complex scientific document, invariably my knowledge expands and my ability to grasp complicated concepts quickly and put them into arresting, readable language improves. This helps me to avoid overwriting and to cut through the fog of vagueness that can plague writers. I am more precise and considered in my expression. I don’t do waffle anymore. (Perhaps that is why my particular strength, up until now, anyway, has been short fiction. In a short story, every word counts. There can be no waffling, no redundancies, no throat clearing before getting to the point.)
Conversely, when I write creatively, the joy of creating and of playing with language helps me to be a better editor. I learn what works and what doesn’t. I learn which sentences sing, and which need tuning. Also – and perhaps most importantly – I develop empathy for my clients. I know how hard it is. I know what it costs to put yourself on the page, and to open yourself to feedback and criticism (even if it’s constructive). As a writer myself, I relate to writers. This, I think, makes me a good editor. I handle manuscripts with care. I try to remember that this is their story, not mine, and I need to hold it gently and let it be theirs just as much as I need to correct and polish it.
A good proofreader/ editor must repeatedly make careful judgements about what to touch and what to leave alone. It’s an art, and being a writer myself helps me do it better.
The two aspects of my language life – editor and author – intersect, wind around each other, and build bridges over and under each other—and are both, ultimately, heading towards the same destination.
Hopefully, that destination is good writing. Jump on board.