Write better #2: Shipbuilding

Lost in the detail

Here’s a lovely illustration of why all writers – even the best ones – need an editor:

“In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior.

What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.”

Michael Crichton, quoted in the Paris Review

(I stumbled on this, by the way, via Austin Kleon’s blog – his book ‘Steal Like An Artist’ is a great creativity kick-starter.)

Whatever you’re writing, it’s easy, maybe even inevitable, that you’ll wander along with the ideas, get distracted by the detail, go too far in one direction and neglect another. Sometimes that’s the most pleasing thing about writing: indulging in whatever feels important. Eventually, though, you need your guy/girl on the dock to straighten things up.

While we’re on editing, NY Book Editors has this helpful overview of the difference between line/development editing (the early stage(s) of making the overall piece work) and copyediting (the last stage before publication – checking and correcting). Or put simply: “the job of a general editor is to help you tell a better story, and the job of a copyeditor is to make sure the grammar on every page is correct”. If you’re looking for an editor, think about what stage you’re at and what you need from them.

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