Too Heads Or Too Many Cooks?

The comments last week got me thinking more about how important the

Zelazny Manuscript Page

editorial/ revising cycle is to the creative process.  (I should note, there are always comments that don’t get posted; apparently, I have the shyest blog readers in history!)

Tori commented that even artists need that second pair of eyes.   Paul (who was a reporter for many years) mentioned that the only times he could edit himself were when he had a long cooling off period.  Jim – who has been spending this past week editing a segment of a report written by someone else and is collaborating on a paper with another archeologist – also commented how much he values that extra point of view on his work.

So clearly the editorial cycle is an important element not only in fiction writing, but in non-fiction writing, in the visual arts, and in…  Well, that’s my first question, actually!  Are there other fields where outside input is a crucial part of the creative process?

I’m also very curious about when in the creative cycle feedback is most useful for you.  I know that the range varies and that there is no one “right” way.

I’m at one end of the spectrum.  I don’t want feedback until the piece is done and polished to the best of my ability.  For this reason, I don’t belong to any writer’s groups.  Jim is accustomed to me talking intensely about a piece in the vaguest manner possible.  Part of this is because he’s my first reader and I don’t want to provide too many spoilers, but part of this is because, for me, the piece still belongs to itself, and outside ideas aren’t welcome.

I can’t polish until I’m done because, until I’m done, I don’t know where I’m going.  I also get to know my characters better on that first part of the journey.  That means I can brush stroke them into fuller life in later pass-throughs.  Now, if I get interupted somewhere in the composition process, I’ve been known to go and read through what I wrote before I start again.  Inevitably, this will lead to some preliminary polishing, but even if I’ve done that, I start with the first line and re-read all the way through as part of my self-edit.

Only after I’ve done that do I go looking for that second set of eyes.  Jim’s first, but, unless the project is under a tight deadline, I usually ask one or more critically-minded friends to look at the “finished” novel or story.

By contrast, I know of writers who anguish over every word, over every character name, over every descriptive detail.  They can’t move forward until these parts are perfect.  This means their first draft is much, much “cleaner” than mine ever are.  Interestingly, many of the writers I know who write this way also belong to writer’s groups, so they recieve input along the way.

On a tangent…  Always beware of writers who talk about not rewriting.  This term can mean very different things to different types of writers.

Roger Zelazny often spoke of himself as “not rewriting.”  Then he made me a gift of a novella typescript for the short story “Kalifriki of the Thread,” a short story that would appear in 1989 in the anthology Hidden Turnings, edited by Diana Wynne Jones.  (My thanks to Chris Kovacs for tracking the publication information down for me.)

To the end of his life, Roger composed either longhand or on a typewriter, never on a computer.  To my surprise, the typescript was full of little cross-outs and changes.  I said, “I’ve heard you say you don’t rewrite!”  Roger was astonished.  “But this is just polishing.  When I say ‘rewriting,’ I mean the type of redrafting I’ve heard other writers talk about, where they change entire scenes or eliminate entire plots.”

So when do you look for feedback on your story or picture or paper?  When is a second set of eyes useful?  When do you find that, instead of two heads being better than one, too many cooks spoil the broth?


12 Responses to “Too Heads Or Too Many Cooks?”

  1. Peter Says:

    Outside input is also important in acting (and on two levels – during the writing of the script, and during the actual production). I assume the same is true of music and dance.

    When it comes down to it, I have a hard time thinking of fields where outside input is *not* important – it is a key element of the scientific process, for example, and I know I value a third-party perspective in my own field (teaching).

    Of course then there is the tricky question of how to deal with useful, productive, well-intentioned outside input…one disagrees with vehemently 😉

    • janelindskold Says:

      What I do with “useful, productive, well-intentioned outside input” that I disagree with is as follows.

      I disagree. However, I make a note of it. If I hear the same criticism a second time from a new source, then I force myself to consider that two sources who have not communicated with each other might not be wrong.

      I might be… Horrors!

      This is one reason I’m glad I don’t workshop my books. Short of people writing down their notes in advance and demonstrating a uncontaminated shared response it’s too easy to fall into the “me, too” syndrome.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I think editing is vitally important. The two statements I most dislike seeing on anything I’ve written are “looks good” (translation: I didn’t look at it) and “It’s wrong. Fix it.” (Now if I knew why it was wrong, I wouldn’t have written it that way, would I?).

    While I get Peter’s opinion, I have more trouble dealing with the non-responses above than I do with something I disagree with. The disagreement is the basis for a discussion, rather than a show-stopper. Usually.

    As for when I like editing, it’s at the beginning and the end. Input in the beginning is useful, especially when writing reports, because I want to find out what the client (and the boss) need to see. Sometimes that’s not so clear. At the end, it’s great to get feedback on whether what I wrote worked, in whatever context I was writing in.

  3. Dominique Says:

    Editing is critical in all aspects of science. However, when I am writing a manuscript, I find that I am usually the best editor. Different people have distinct writing styles, and sometimes if I send my papers out for revisions from others, my voice has been lost somewhere in their editing. Because of this I usually send my writing to only a few trusted friends or colleagues.

  4. heteromeles Says:

    Someone made a distinction between good editing and the “fire hydrant” syndrome. The idea with the syndrome is when people start editing your manuscript the way dogs use fire hydrants: to make their mark, rather than to improve the quality of the manuscript. I’ve been there a few times.

  5. Alan Robson Says:

    My wife Robin is always my first reader and I find her advice very valuable. Sometimes it’s as simple as, “You missed out a comma.” and that’s always good to know. And sometimes it’s as complicated as, “But what about so-and-so?”. That last is the most valuable advice of all because that’s when it becomes clear that what I thought was final copy is actually only an early draft. The discussion with her of the ideas that the piece generates is a wonderful mechanism for clearing the fog out of the words.

    But however it works out, the only person who puts all the words into the piece is me. I don’t like to lose my voice — my word choices, my sentence structure are uniquely mine, for better or worse. I’m very happy to discuss structure and shape and form and to alter things accordingly. But the words that implement the result of the discussions are always mine.


  6. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I’m still a very young author so forgive my experience.

    That said, these days I’m almost afraid of input and more lessons. They always make me dissect what I have so far, often to disastrous (or at least time consuming) ends. I often bounce details or problems I’m having off my mom. A dormant writer herself, she always helps me see a better way, and she’s so patient when all I need is for someone to just listen. Not even say a word. Just listen to my babble until the issue dissolves.

    As for editing, I now prefer to do all I can do it before I let others see it. After all, John may not be the murderer after all. Or maybe he’ll become an accomplice, but the not the trigger man. Like you, I don’t really know the book till it’s written. How can anyone edit a work that hasn’t finished changing?

    P.S. As for other arts that need an outside eye? Just about any sport counts. Even some of these online video games need someone else to look from outside and say, “This is what you need to be better.” We all need that outside eye to show us our faults. The trick is listening to the good, ignoring the bad, and figuring out which is which.

    Still learning that one.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Everyone had such valuable things to say I could respond individually, but I’m going to restrain myself.

    It’s good to hear that most people feel that feedback is key to their fields. That means that it’s possible to acquire a skill valuable to a writer in advance of writing anything.

    The tricky part is — as several people said — too much input (or too little). In the one case, you risk losing your identity. This is why I value many of the editors I’ve worked with who say “this isn’t working” but leave it up to me to come up with a solution.

    I really hate when someone starts rattling off a “Hey! You could do it this way! Or this way!”

    But no input is bad, too… Or worse, uninformed warm and fuzzy… I have lost count of the number of people who look at me in consternation with some variation on “but my mom… my teacher… my friends…” thought it was wonderful. A few questions usually elicit that such people know nothing about prose writing or SF or whatever.

    Mystery writer Ngaio Marsh wrote an essay called “My Poor Boy” which shows what a perennial problem this can be. (It’s in the collection _Death on the Air_.)


    (And I see I didn’t do a very good job at restraining myself.)

  8. Paul Says:

    I recently turned in a first draft to a collaborator which I thought was a finished piece, and the collaborator promptly found a plot hole which we fixed — and, while doing that, I found that I’d had a character use an expression she could not have known. You can’t look at this stuff too many times — but eventually you do have to send it out.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Yes… and the question of when that “eventually” should come is one I want to address down the line, especially since I feel that in these days of too easy e-publishing “eventually” often comes far too soon.

  9. Margaret Hammitt-McDonald Says:

    Hi, everyone! I’m new to Jane’s blog; I’m a writer, physician, and community-theater performer who met Jane when she was in graduate school and I was an undergraduate.

    As a child, I shared my stories and illustrations with my parents and received encouragement from both. While my mother was always enthusiastic, my father was my first constructive critic. He praised what worked and gave me gentle suggestions for what didn’t. Their feedback styles provided me with a warm, helpful atmosphere for the seeds of my writing to grow. My mom’s cheer-leading instilled confidence. My father’s respectful recommendations taught me that as long as a reader believes in the writer and his/her project, his/her recommendations enable the work to shine rather than demolishing it.

    Alas, I had a negative experience with critical feedback when I took a college fiction-writing class at the age of 14. Every student submitted two short stories to be mimeographed (ancient times!) and distributed to the whole class for a critique session. When I submitted my first story, the experience resembled my nine cats converging on a plate full of juice from a can of tuna: once one started to tear into a morsel, the rest jostled to rip their portion out of my prose. About ten years later I reread the short story and cringed at the overwrought prose and recognized the validity of the critiquers’ comments, but that Jack the Ripper-esque experience made me critic-shy for many years.

    Since then, I learned how precious a select group of skilled readers can be, but I also realized I needed to be judicious about choosing readers and my work also needed to reach a certain level of readiness. I had to choose people who like speculative fiction and understand the conventions and trends of the genre, and who also appreciate a writer who works hard to create artful prose (even if this draft isn’t the most artful it could be!) They need to be like my father: people who believe in me as a writer and who care about the book and therefore whose suggestions I take seriously. Also, I realized I couldn’t just slap drafts on readers before I’d polished them a number of times beforehand. The creative-writing class was an extreme example in the sense that not only was my short story not ready for other readers, but at 14, I hadn’t achieved the level of artistic achievement and technical competency where I could’ve embarked on writing for the public.

    Now I belong to a small writers’ group. We’re good friends and honest critics, and we share our novels when we’ve each revised them at least once so we’re putting our best work forward. I value my fellow writers’ instincts and knowledge, and as readers, we catch the plot holes and linguistic howlers that we all miss in the white heat of composing.

    Thanks for this forum to share thoughts on writing, Jane!


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