Tuesday, August 27

Four Ways to Edit like a Chef

Last time I used the equation:

Thought + Write + Edit =
Ingredients + Cook + Garnish

Since I’m backasswards, I want to talk about editing first.  We have the most control over the last part of the creative process, which is why we fuck it up.  We let our insecurities, frustrations, and expectations get involved, and then throw everything away.

You have a disassembled word cake that just came out of the oven.  Now what?  Here are the pitfalls to editing, and strategies on how to avoid them, all by thinking like a chef:

1) Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen.  Cooking is not a democracy.  There is a definite hierarchy.  Someone is in charge, and anyone who gets in the way is kicked out (sometimes nicely, sometimes not).

In your brain, who’s in charge of your word kitchen?  How many parts of your personality are offering “advice” and telling you how to stir your macaroni and cheese?  Do you let the images of your family and friends and teachers and critics into your kitchen?  Are they hovering over your stove?

If so, politely tell them to get the fuck out of your writing and go wait in the dining room.  Especially your critic needs to get out of the kitchen, and wait until you are done cooking.

I know this doesn’t make any sense, and goes contrary to everything you’ve ever been told about writing, but your critic doesn’t edit.  You edit.  Your critic waits until you are done, then eats your words, then writes a review.  They might send the dish back because it’s cold or needs salt or whatever, but never let your critic into your writing space.

Be your own word dictator.

2)  Leave the Drama in Your Writing.  You are not a five-star restaurant.  You don’t eat on gold plates.  You aren’t bedecked in diamonds.  When a chef cooks a steak, they know it’s just a steak.  

So why do writers act all high and mighty about what they do?  Your words are just words.  Do you freak out about making a sandwich?  No you don’t, so don’t freak out about writing a sentence.  Don’t act like writing is life and death.  Put the melodrama in the story, not in the process of writing the story.

3)  Presentation is Everything.  Here’s an ugly truth: everyone judges books by their cover.  What?  No way!  That’s not fair.  Yup, it isn’t fair, and life is not fair.

If you wrap a sandwich in paper, people will pay less for it than if a dude in a suit brings it on fine china to their table.  That’s life.  Hardback books cost triple what a paperback costs.

So when you edit, think about how you present your words.  It should match the intended audience.  For example, I can be edgy and swear on a tumblr blog, but in a college paper or a job, I would clean up my language.

Accentuate befittingly.  If you bake a chocolate cake, you might not want to decorate it with mushrooms.  Make sure the language you’ve chosen highlights your core idea (or most likely ideas). 

When I write haiku, I format them like haiku, and I frame them with hashtags so everyone knows it’s a haiku.  In a larger philosophical sense, art is anything in a frame, and as an artist, you need to make a conscious decision about your frame.

4)  Know When to Let Go of the Plate.  Imagine that a cook takes forever to bring your food, then as they’re about to drop the plate on your table they stick their finger in your mashed potatoes and say, “Oops, sorry, need to add more salt.  Be right back.”

You would leave that restaurant and never come back.

When you edit, your goal is to finish, then move on.  As I tell my kids, “Stop farting around.”  Fix your writing, and send it to the table.   Chefs are never like, “Oh no, I’ll never bake a cookie like that one again!” 

Here’s your zen moment: you can only grab something new if you’ve let something else go.   So let your old writing go.  Then you can write something new.

Happy writing!

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