Dear Story Nurse,
I’m a longtime journalist (mostly editing but often reporting and writing), and I struggle to get far enough away from my words to edit my first draft—I often submit a draft that I’ve revised but is still twice as long as commissioned.
I have no problem editing others’ words, but after I’ve put in the work to report, distill, and write an article, I can no longer read it clearly enough to decide where to make structural changes, what information is too much, and so on.
Maybe this is a problem all writers have? Maybe it’s just a matter of letting the draft sit for a day or two before I revise and submit (but I’m often on tight deadlines and that’s not always an option). I’d love to hear what other writers do to distance themselves from the words they’ve put down in order to self-edit—it’d be really helpful not just in my reporting but also in my wishlist of fiction writing.
—Too Close (he/him)
Dear Too Close,
I don’t think this is a problem all writers have, but it’s definitely a problem lots of writers have. There are very few arts or crafts where an important part of creation is destroying part of what you’ve created. Even sculptors don’t have to make the marble before they start chipping it away. This is why you hear “kill your darlings” so often—not because any phrase you fall in love with is inherently not worth keeping around, but because we have to accustom ourselves to wielding the red pen on the same work we spent so much time sweating out. It can be very emotionally and psychologically difficult to do that.
Dear Story Nurse,
So, I have no problem writing anything that can be done in one sitting (once I’ve chased the brain weasels off and started typing, that is). I can do some good work in micro and flash fiction and I’m trying to stretch things out. You said some really good things earlier about tying pieces together with plot threads and those were really helpful, but I have a somewhat different problem: If I have to stop, I find it really hard to pick the thing back up again. (My writing time is necessarily fragmented, with job/commute/parenting. I write when I can.)
It seems that I don’t know how to pick up the mood/action of the story and carry those words further out. Note that this only seems to happen with fiction writing: class assignments were easy to pick back up, and most essays are easy to pick the thread back up and carry on with my work.
I have a good idea for a story, I can make decent headway, but once I stop, I’m doomed. How do I restart the engine?
Please Story Nurse, you’re my only hope!
Thanks for bringing up this problem, which I think is a pretty common one. It can have a few different causes, but the one I see most often is a sort of writerly centipede’s dilemma. Something about the process of sitting down to add more words to a half-written work makes you very aware that you are writing, and then you get self-conscious and either feel blocked from writing at all or dislike everything you try to write.
Hey Story Nurse,
I’ve been dabbling in writing since I was 14, and now that I graduated university I decided that it was Time To Get Down To Business. The problem is, whenever I sit down to write anything, I always feel terrible about it once it hits 10k. It’s not that I lack confidence in my writing skills (I studied English lit), but it’s more that I worry that no one in the world would ever want to read my story. Who cares about a novella with two girls trapped on a lonely planet?! How can I get rid of that self doubt? Because I know I want to read that story, and I know that there is such a big market for stories casually featuring queer girls, but I just can’t seem to make the cognitive leap from “people like stories about queer girls in space” to “people will like MY story about queer girls in space”.
I’m going to a retreat for 5 days next week, and I really want to work on this story, but I just feel like I need to find some CONFIDENCE!
Thank you so much for your time,
Space Lesbian (she/her)
Dear Space Lesbian,
I’m sorry I didn’t get to respond in time for your retreat, and I hope it was very helpful to you one way or another. Sometimes sitting alone in a room with your work and no other distractions is the best way to figure out what’s really keeping you from writing.
In this letter, you talk about yourself and your work as though they’re one and the same. One moment you say you don’t think anyone will want to read your work, and the next you say you doubt yourself. Your identification with your work is something I see a lot of in students and recent graduates, because school is a place where you as a person are judged by the quality of your work in a way that’s pretty psychologically terrible. We say that a person is a “straight-A student” when what we mean is that that person’s work is consistently evaluated very highly by their teachers. The person, as a person, does not directly get graded. But that’s how it feels—that the grade for your work is the grade for you.