Friday, July 12, 2019

First, Do No Harm

The Sole Heir™ recently graduated from medical school. (“We know!” shout the masses of readers. “Congratulations to her but it’s not like you haven’t mentioned it every day since.”) Part of the graduation ceremony is the taking of the Hippocratic Oath. While this phrase never actually appears in the oath’s current iteration, most of us know it as the source material for the exhortation to “First, do no harm.” This is good advice for way more people than just doctors. Since this blog exists to discuss writing, I’ll stick to that avenue today, though the lessons apply to all walks of life.

I’m one of those who believes a writer’s real work comes in editing and rewriting. To me, the real function of the first draft is to provide the ore from which the final product will be refined. That said, nuggets are sometimes recovered in final form directly from the stream. The trick of editing is to recognize those while improving everything else. In other words, doing no harm to what needs no assistance.

What is the surest way not to do harm to what already exists? (Short of not editing it, of course.) Accept your limitations. We all have them. If a particular phrase doesn’t read quite the way you’d like, change it, but keep the change only if you’re sure you like the edited version better. A tie should go to the original, if only because that was what you wrote in the full flow of creativity, presumably with the Muse perched on your shoulder.

Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you were just stuck at the time. It was late, you didn’t feel well, shitty day at the paying gig. Whatever. You took what was available, maybe justifying yourself by considering it a placeholder until you could get back and fix it in the edit. Now the edit is here and you still don’t have a better way.

There are a couple of directions to go from here. The preferred method is to re-write the entire paragraph or section to create a more elegant setup or exit for the problem sentence or phrase. Here’s the key: make sure that in fixing the offending sentence you don’t fuck up the surrounding material. If a less than optimal sentence is the result of leaving alone excellent writing both fore and aft, well, ain’t no one perfect.

That’s not to say you settle. At least for me, there are always additional editing passes, including a gruesomely detailed read/edit on screen/edit on paper/read aloud and proofread sequence that marks the final draft, after which I can type THE END and move on. This comes after at least two thorough edits beyond the first draft. Sometimes more.

The prescription to do no harm allows me not to have to undo anything in the later drafts that I should have left alone in the first place. I’m not so much accepting a less than stellar segment as I’m accepting that maybe that’s all the better I can write it at this time. If I’m diligent in improving my craft, I may have absorbed what I need to improve this bit by the next time I come around to it. This is why I don’t mind reading fiction when I’m working on a project. First, I almost have a project working, so I’d hardly ever get to read fiction if I denied myself access while crafting my own piece. More important from a writing perspective, I never know when something will strike me as a better way to handle whatever is giving me trouble. I like to thinking of it as inspiration or education rather than plagiarizing, but let’s be honest: we all steal. Might as well steal from the best, and from a passage that has some relevance to what you’re stuck on rather than a book of writerly advice.

First, do no harm. Editing can be enough of a pain in the ass. Don’t make subsequent passes harder than necessary because you improved what was good in the original right out of existence in the hope of making it better. (This is also why you should keep all drafts in separate files, so you can go back.) We write as we learn, in increments. Take your improvements as you find them.

And what if you never do get that sentence exactly how you want it? Regrettable, true, but not every word of your deathless process need bring a tear of envy to Shakespeare’s eye. Pick any favorite book from your shelf. I guarantee you there will be word choices, phrases, sentences, that you look at and think, “That’s not his best effort.” Doesn’t matter who the author is. The perfect cannot be aloud to become the enemy of the good.

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