The Editor’s Hangover

By Rhen Wilson

Editing both enthralls and dismays any writer. One of the most challenging aspects of writing, the pruning of prose requires a delicate hand and, simultaneously, a heartless set of shears.

As the leader of my team at Boston Interactive, I act as editor, and I can be ruthless to my team’s drafts. My editorial notes are despised, my red pen vilified. And yet, writing requires revisions. Without it, most of what I publish would be shit. Intentionally so, I might add.

Writing is not the end result, but the process.

Your mind must expel its innards onto paper (or the computer screen). The difference between vomiting and writing is negligible. Only when you’ve emptied your bowels of the sickness that is “creative inspiration” can you begin to recover.

Word Vomit

Hemingway said to write drunk and edit sober. Taken literally, the man was onto something—as I write this, a copper-colored whiskey sits inches from my hand—but his meaning was figurative. We should, he argued, write like a drunkard, who spills his guts to the nearest neighbor in intoxicated desperation—passionately and without censor.

During that first draft, I advise my team, let everything escape. Hold nothing back. If you pause to consider the style and syntax, to brood over word choice, to anguish over passive voice, then you’ll never write a damn word. Like sex, if you overthink it, it loses all pleasure.

The Hangover

Edit sober. That’s Hemingway’s advice. After a night of bacchanalia, you wake up, your head still spinning, your eyes burning from the piercing light of your monitor’s text editor—that impatient blinking cursor. You look around, trying to piece together whatever the hell happened during this first draft. You sift through mistakes and debris—stale pizza, piles of empty beer cans, an unidentified person’s arm falling out from the laundry room.

Slowly, gradually, between those lines of text you begin to distinguish the meaning from the madness. As you toss away a pair of underwear hanging from the ceiling fan—how did I ever write this garbage??—you recall the girl you met last night, for the briefest moment. You remember her mint-green eyes, her spools of raven hair, her scent of body lotion. You recall bits of conversation that mean more now than winning beer pong or funneling three Keystone Lights in a row. You uncover the truth in your writing. You find those rare words and ideas that carry weight, that are more than garbled gibberish. You’re sober now. You have perspective. You have that required distance to see your own work objectively and honestly.

Edit Sober

This part is never easy. But that’s the job of the editor. To clean up the mess. To pick up the garbage, to clear out the ashtrays and wipe up the puke. The goal is not to scrape away the evidence of last night—you’re not a teenager fearful of your parents’ imminent return. You experienced something real last night. You connected with someone. Maybe you overheard a secret. Maybe you discovered something about yourself.

Hold onto it. Keep it safe. Only when you allow yourself to be reckless, when you give into your irrational mind, can you begin to find those authentic moments worth keeping. And only then will your writing shine.