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Creative Genius vs. Editing Witch

on February 20th, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on February 20, 2011

Did you know that writers have two sides to their creativity?

There’s the Creative Genius who writes deep into the night (or in the car at traffic lights, on napkins at the coffee shop, in between innings at the kids’ baseball games), drafting wild scenarios and marvelous prose that become the melody of saints and the heart song of angels.

And then there’s the Editing Witch, the enemy agent who tears down every magnificent and original phrase penned by the CG.

Or, viewed from the other side, maybe each writer has as Editing Witch a built-in savior for when the Creative Genius goes mad and overreaches her skills with unintelligible passages and florid purple prose.

Hmm. The reality is slightly different from what either party would have you believe.

The writer’s purely creative side is freer than the editing side. When she’s given the freedom she both craves and fears, the Creative Genius can create soaring prose, lyrical phrasing, and stories worthy of tears and applause.

The same Creative Genius can also create a muddled mess of incoherent garbage, fit for neither reader nor posterity.

The writer’s internal editor is likewise burdened by competing abilities. When the Editing Witch is working properly—at the right time and with the right attitude—she transforms the genius’s messes into beauty, into works of sublime art. Or she exercises one of her other responsibilities and simply cuts the bad prose from a manuscript, freeing space for good and clear writing, excising the bad to prevent it from contaminating the rest of the words.

When she’s out of line, however, the Editing Witch can get in the way of the Creative Genius, stifling her creativity, preventing her from releasing the creative forces required for producing superior craft and memorable story.

*******

A writer’s best work comes when his creative side and his editing side work together instead of against each other, as teammates rather than competitors. They have separate but complementary roles, and when they stick to those roles, the writer can create something magical. Something, at the least, memorable. Something good.

To keep them in place, in line, and doing their own jobs without hindering the work of the other, the writer must understand their jobs and his dual creative nature.

Creative Genius

A writer’s creative side writes the story. So far, so good. But the CG can’t write imaginative fiction with the Editing Witch looking over her shoulder telling her to check facts, check spelling, check grammar, and do it all this moment. The time of creation is not the time for editing. Writing time is for getting the story down, the story in all its unwieldy glory and mess and confusion.

The Editing Witch should be silent during the creation phrase, holding herself aloof until it’s time for the wielding of red pencil and dictionary and style manual.

The writer who tries to create under the Editing Witch’s sharp whip and eagle eye will produce stilted prose with no music to it—common phrases, common rhythms, common plots. Stopping to check the meaning or spelling of a word or to brush up on grammar mid-thought halts the forward motion of writing, it disrupts the flow of creative phrasing and unfettered imagination. Interrupting the active process of creation to fix things is just as bad for creating good story as are poor writing skills and no imagination.

Writing time is reserved for the writer’s creative side. The Creative Genius should hang out a sign: writer at work—do not disturb. And she should make no place for the Editing Witch while she is engaged in that work.

Editing Witch

The writer needs his internal editor. The Editing Witch’s skills make his writing understandable, palatable to readers, inviting to readers. Every writer must set aside time to let the Editing Witch do her thing. This means time for rewrites—three or seven or a dozen, whatever is necessary.

It means the Editing Witch gets time alone with the manuscript, time to check for cosmetic errors and structural errors and every manner of error in between.

The Creative Genius typically doesn’t get in the way of the Editing Witch, not the way the Editing Witch disrupts the Creative Genius with her nagging, but the CG can get impatient with the Editing Witch.

The creative side—the side that believes that once the plot is written out, the story’s ready to be published—needs to allow the editing side as much time as is necessary to check for plot holes and character weaknesses and syntax errors and so forth . . . all those little elements that can go off track on their way to making big stories.

A story is not done, not complete, just because the writer has written opening, second act, climax, and resolution. A first draft is not a finished story. The Editing Witch needs to get her hands on the manuscript and do what she does well, just as the Creative Genius needed her uninterrupted time to create.

*******

There are two sides to a writer, two sides of the creative process. Both are necessary for good fiction. Both are crucial for the finished product. And both need to make way for the other.

One writer may find his creative side to be stronger than the editing side; another writer may experience the opposite. Yet the writer who realizes he needs both sides of his creativity, who makes place for both Creative Genius and Editing Witch, will continue to improve his craft. He will likely find the proper balance that works for him, moving from creator to editor and back again several times over the course of a project.

He may still write messy passages, but with the Editing Witch in her proper place, both when editing and while waiting to edit, and with the Creative Genius solely focused on getting the story down, he may just make those angels sing more often than not. Giving his Creative Genius the freedom to experiment and knowing the Editing Witch will rein in the excesses and errors, the writer may come up with a story of lasting beauty and value, something he and both sides of his creative nature can be proud to have written.

 ***

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7 Responses to “Creative Genius vs. Editing Witch”

  1. Judi Fennell says:

    I often find that both the CG and the EW can be bribed. I’ve found chocolate, champagne and favorite movies work best.

  2. Ah, the champagne/chocolate stupor. Do these bribes keep them in their places or make them better at their tasks? I can see how movies would be perfect distractions to either genius or witch.

  3. nelle says:

    Interesting post, and well said. My initial storywriting goes down without a care about quality; it’s all about recording the idea before it evaporates. Once the story track exists in this rough form, then I switch modes. I’m one fool who loves editing as much as I love the creative process, because each contributes to advancing the story.

    Where I fall short is with shorts. Nowhere near the editing scrutiny goes into such work, since I consider it my place to get drunk and play around. ;-)

  4. Nelle, I’m with you on loving editing. It’s just plain enjoyable to rework something into the best story it can be.

    So, should we help you lock up the alcohol until you’ve given your short stories the attention they deserve? No rewards until the work is done?

    I’m glad you stopped by.

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