God bless Neil Gaiman. (If you believe in God. If you don’t believe in God, well then, you can send Neil good wishes.) This past week he wrote in his online journal that 90 to 95% of what he writes in his first draft stays in his finished product. (Scroll to the very bottom of his post.) He only has to tweak about 5% of the draft for final publication. Why is this good news, when it could be horribly depressing? Well, when I’ve labored over a piece, I find that by the end, I don’t usually have much editing to do. I’m not saying that in a fit of arrogance, like, “Oh, my work is so good it doesn’t need editing.” I’m saying it because I’ve noticed that I edit as I write. I’ve also written long enough that certain parts of writing come easily and I don’t have to think about them anymore. I’d say that for most of my essays and short stories, I have about the same percentage of editing to do upon completion of the first draft that Neil has. Hard as this may be to believe, but I’ve felt mighty guilty about that for a long time – ever since I attended a workshop at which the writer told us we had to edit and edit and edit, that she loved to edit and wouldn’t stop until her publisher made her. I figured that all writers had to do the same. Neil has proven this theory wrong. Not that I’m knocking those writers who love to edit, mind you. It’s just that we all have our own ways of writing and we shouldn’t be made to feel guilty if our way doesn’t match some other writer’s way.
Take my husband, for example. Writing for him is an angst-ridden exercise much of the time. He can speak eloquently at length on the most complicated topics, but when it comes to writing down his words, they suddenly leave him, never to be seen again. He can’t type fast enough to capture his thoughts. He has also discovered that when it comes to writing a college paper, his mind can only concentrate deeply on one major topic at a time. This doesn’t work well when he has several papers due at once. For all the stress he experiences, his writing is wonderful. Even if he doesn’t think so. (Listen to your wife, Honey. She knows what she’s talking about. 🙂 )
My mom says that she can’t write, period. She says she can’t get her thoughts out on paper the way they are in her head. When she was in grade school, she’d copy the text off of book flaps for book reports, which is kind of cute, even if it was plagiarism. I’m not entirely sure about my mom’s claims at not being a writer. I have read a few letters that she’s written over the years and not found any problems with them. I understood them; her grammar and spelling were good; and she has the cutest handwriting. Because she doesn’t think she can write, she doesn’t write, which is a shame because she’s an interesting person.
Writing, like any other skill or talent, comes through each of us (or doesn’t) in its own way. That’s what gives each of us a distinctive voice.