Gotta Be Cruel to Be Kind

In addition to my own writing and revising and inventing new literature, I do a great deal of reading and commenting on other people’s work. It’s hard revising your own work – you’ve been looking at the same words for months, or maybe even years, and by now your mind fills in all the things that aren’t there and should be, and glosses over all the things that are there are shouldn’t be.

girl with typewriter

With my new typewriting machine, re-writing every page a dozen times will be as easy as washing my 14 sister’s petticoats in my new mangler!

I have a long list of rules for my writing, and when editing myself, I can run through this very technical and mechanical list no matter how familiar with the material I may be. My computer’s “find” function doesn’t care whether the word “were” is in the proper context, is irreplaceable or is the prefix for something only half-human, it will find and display it. Also true for “had,” “seemed,” and all adverbs, including my own list of 50 or so that don’t end in -ly.

But when you’re editing for someone else, is it fair to hold them to the same standard you hold for yourself? For instance, I want to know the precise moment on the fourth page where the reader began nodding off, so I can punch up the action, but is it okay to doodle “losing consciousness….” in the margin of your editee’s manuscript? I want to know which of my jokes fall flat, but is it okay to rubber stamp “NOT FUNNY” on every failed play on words in your friend’s novel?

Frankly, I think it is. I think that not only is it okay, but it’s required. I feel that when I’m editing or critiquing someone else’s work, they’re saying to me “I want to make this work commercially viable.” Modern publishing being as competitive as it is, I feel that I would be a rotten friend, colleague or student if I soft-pedaled my opinion of things that aren’t up to snuff.

Mah Jong Massacre

The last one standing gets his blog turned into a book!

The one thing that anyone getting criticism from me has to remember, though, is that I am only one person, and a little bit warped, at that. When it comes to other folks opinions of your puns, your imagery or your use of “so” at the beginning of every other sentence, your mileage may vary. If you think that I’m being mean when I point out dozens of instances of passive voice or strike out as unnecessary an entire section it took you weeks to perfect, it’s not because I hate you and want you to die. It’s because I like you and want you to succeed. You’d be forgiven for confusing the two things, though. My kids do it all the time.

Making a List. Checking It Twice.

It’s the 27th. In four days, I start my next novel. I posted earlier about how I am planning for my story this year, but I didn’t post about all the other stuff that needs to happen this year. I’ve been asked in previous years about how one holds down a job, keeps ones’ household running and writes a novel without resorting to incredibly hard drugs or armies of servants, and I answer that it takes one simple thing. It takes a list.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon practicing in Boston, as well as the author of dozens of scholarly papers and general-interest articles about medicine and, more recently, organization. His recent articles have been about how we, as fallible human beings, continue to improve our performance professionally and personally throughout our lives. His book, The Checklist Manifesto, outlines how to continue to perform well in the face of increased complexity.

I’ve always been a fan of lists, and I’ll need them more than ever, considering that in November I will write a novel, help plan a new website for the volunteer group I work with, read and critique the writing of the rest of my cohort in grad school, look for a new house and host company from the 8th through Thanksgiving.

If you’re thinking of starting listing, here are some things you might want to consider to make your lists really work for you:

  1. Make sure your list items are tasks, not projects. A project is a collection of tasks, so if you have “clean out the garage” on your list, you might want to break it up into things like “take old bicycles to the dump,” “put old work bench on Craigslist,” etc.
  2. Review your list at least weekly. I put the date in the margin every Monday, and continue the same list. Then, I use a new color of hilighter to mark off the things I finish. This method means that I can instantly see what I got done this week, and tell how when I put it on the list. Things that sit on your list for 3-4 weeks should be re-evaluated – they might need to be broken into smaller chunks, or postponed.
  3. Take your list with you everywhere. Mine is just a spiral-bound notebook that lives with all my other stuff. When my husband wants to talk about what we’re doing this week, or when I go to a volunteer meeting, I bring it with me so that I can capture any new tasks and so that I have a reminder not to over-commit myself.

Fear of the unknown is a well-known phenomenon (a Google search on that phrase yielded 40.6 million results). People with complex lives are afraid that they may miss something – that they won’t know that they should be doing X when they’re busy doing Y. Making a list is a great way to take that fear of the unknown, that fear of losing control over the complexity of your life, and make it manageable.