Good morning! Jen is hosting Sunday Check-in on her blog, and we have a special guest essay here today, too. Cheryl Klein is executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic as well as the author of The Magic Words, a great new resource for writers. She’s joining us today with a post about bringing your work-self and writer-self together.
BEING OF TWO MINDS: How to Carry Strengths and Confidence from One Job You Know into the Work of Writing
By Cheryl B. Klein
Until last year, if you asked me what my job was, I would have said without hesitation, “I’m an editor.” I’ve worked in children’s and YA publishing for nearly sixteen years, and I love collaborating with authors to help them develop and refine their stories. I’ve also done a fair amount of writing, certainly—I even self-published a book in 2011. But since that book (and all my freelance writing) focused on teaching writers how to edit their own work, editing remained my primary identity.
Then, in 2015, a traditional publisher offered me a contract for a revision of my self- published book. Suddenly, my writing went from part-time hobby to second job, where I was on deadline for a project that tens of thousands of people might discover and read. This shift in identity and responsibility freaked me out, to put it bluntly. Some of my panic was the enormity of the task I’d undertaken, to restructure and expand my idiosyncratic little book into a comprehensive writing guide in just a few months. But a lot of my new fear was about judgment: I was about to be the judged rather than the judge, the edited rather than the editor, and I spent a fair amount of time staring at a blank page, wrestling with the insecurity and fear that truth brought up.
What got me past my block at last was editing. I didn’t know if I could succeed at writing the book I dreamed of creating, or some days, if I could write even one new essay for it. But what I did know, for sure, was how to probe, dissect, arrange, amplify, streamline, balance, and prune a piece of writing until it optimally expressed its core idea and emotion — that is, how to edit. All I needed to do, I reasoned, was fight through the fear and judgment and get some messy ideas on the page. Then I could edit that mess into a coherent essay, and bird by bird, I’d have a book.
This strategy worked. Better yet, it reminded me that I could use all my editorial techniques on my own material, and I approached the revision with newfound confidence. Just as I often outline novel manuscripts as I read them, I created a chapter list of what I thought the book should look like, and revised it as I added and subtracted essays. After I completed a rough first draft, I printed out the manuscript and read it on paper to get a holistic view of the text. Afterward, I made a to-do list of major revisions I wanted to undertake, rather like writing my own editorial letter. When my editor sent me her line-edits on the manuscript, I froze up again briefly, because here was capital-J Judgment of my writing, right on the page in front of me. Then I remembered how I feel when I edit a book—that I’m never interested in judging a writer, only in making the book work—and that freed me to consider her suggestions with a less emotional mind. Throughout the process, my comfort with my first job eased my anxieties in the second, and thanks to that interplay, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults will be out in September.
So why might this matter to you? Well, if you likewise freeze up when you sit down at the blank page, I suspect you too can use strategies from your day job to get past the block and improve your work as a writer. A few ideas to try:
Keep a journal of your day job. I have files on both my desktop at work and my laptop at home where I note recurring patterns in books I’m editing, submissions, or my own editorial reactions, and ideas that might blossom into essays or talks later. As a teacher, you have an unparalleled opportunity to observe a wide range of kids and young adults in action and reflect on their psychology and behavior, individually and in groups. Take notes on what you’re seeing each day — even just one striking image or a line or two of conversation — and let the richness of that reality inspire and inform your work. Moreover, if you’re just starting out as a writer, journaling is a terrific way to build fluency and discipline, and to get in the practice of telling the truth without fear.
What are your favorite parts of your job? What are your unique strengths in that job? Why do your colleagues come to you for help? Try to start your writing from one of those places of love or confidence. If you get most excited about the ideas you’re teaching, begin a story with a theme rather than a character or plot. If you’re fascinated by character, consider the narrative possibilities in bringing two contradictory qualities together in one character, or binding three very different people together in a shared cause. If you prefer one-on-one work with students rather than wrangling and entertaining a large group, try writing an intimate story that focuses on relationships rather than the next Game of Thrones. In short, if you know what you do best, you can build from there to fortify your weak spots, rather than starting your work on uncertain ground.
Look for metaphors and strategies from your work life that can help you in writing. When I was in college, a friend of mine who majored in computer science said that he wrote all his humanities papers as if they were computer programs: His thesis statement was the introductory code for the program; each paragraph of supporting evidence was a subprogram; in his conclusion, he compiled all of the preceding material together. Thinking of writing as coding gave him a structure he felt comfortable with, just as thinking of it as editing relaxed me with my book. What happens when you think of writing as teaching? If your readers were your students, how would you design your time with them? What strategies would you employ to get your point across? To keep them engaged? Experiment with these ideas in your writing.
Use the principles you teach. What do you tell your students about writing? “Messy first drafts”; “show, not tell”; “Use active and not passive voice” . . . These are all lessons we grown-up writers must remember as well. I find myself resisting this truth at times, when I say to myself, “I’m an editor, not a writer! I teach this stuff to writers, so I ought to get it all right the first time!” But honestly, I never get it all right the first time, and there’s no shame in that. I just need to accept that no matter how much I know, I too always have to follow these basic principles—because they’re really good principles!—and I always have more to learn as well. If I lock myself into a position as an “expert,” I miss out on the benefits of being a student: openness, simplicity, a willingness to take risks and have fun.
Trust the process, and trust your process. Along similar lines, whether we are sixth graders writing a five-paragraph essay, or novelists with forty books under our belts, we writers all use the same basic processes: Brainstorm, draft, then revise; good sentences become good paragraphs and then good chapters; big ideas, small details. These structures might seem limiting or frustrating occasionally, but they also work, and if we follow them, quality writing usually results.
At the same time, just as students demonstrate different learning styles, every one of us will have our own writing style and process, and we’ll find our greatest success if we learn to work with and trust that flow. Both my editorial and writing processes feel very sluggish, crabbed, nitpicky, and all over the place to me, as I try to organize thoughts that run in a million different directions. Through the years, I’ve developed a number of techniques to contain these ideas and put them in useable form: the aforementioned chapter outlines and to-do lists; character and plot checklists for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of a novel. These techniques actually slow me down even further, as I have to complete the tasks to feel like I’ve got a full grasp on a book, and it always feels like other editors are working faster and more efficiently than I am. (Yes, we editors can be just like writers when it comes to judgment and competition!) But I’ve also learned that I do my best work, and feel best about my work, when I accept and trust the process I’ve cultivated—and it’s resulted in many, many terrific books through the years, if I do say so myself. If you find a methodology and a story that works for you, don’t worry about how other writers do their drafts, or whether you’re doing it wrong. Trust yourself and your flow, as you do in your day job, and that will bring out your best work.
Cheryl B. Klein is the executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (www.arthuralevinebooks.com), an imprint of Scholastic Inc. She is also the author of Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, and The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, which will be published on September 6, 2016. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Please visit her website and sign up for her newsletter at www.cherylklein.com, and follow her on Twitter at @chavelaque.