Ayn Rand on writing versus editing

She is probably best known for her fictional work, but author Ayn Rand was a dab hand at non-fiction and edited The Objectivist magazine in the 1960s. Like any kind master, Rand was good enough to share the secrets of her journalistic craft in a series of informal talks to friends and colleagues in 1969.

As retold in The Art of Nonfiction: a Guide for Writers and Readers, here is Rand’s take on the differences between writing and editing:

“There are three major differences between writing and editing. First, in writing you rely on your subconscious with minimum interference from your conscious mind. In editing, you do the opposite: the dominant process involves your conscious mind.

“Second, writing, unlike editing, must be highly personal. You go by your emotions, as if you were writing only for yourself. While writing, do not criticise or edit yourself. In editing, however, you must be as objective and impersonal as possible. Try to forget what you have written and read it as if it were by someone else. This is not difficult to do. Anyone who has acted or played charades knows that one can pretend to be another person. So imagine that you have forgotten how the article was written, including all of the emotions, hesitations, and choices involved.

“Here is where memorising your writing impedes you. If you have read your piece too often, you are helpless to edit it. When I wrote We the Living, it took me a week or longer before I could sufficiently forget a particular day’s work and start editing it. I could not get a fresh look because I wrote too slowly and thus memorised everything. By the time I reached Atlas Shrugged, I could edit something the next day. That should be your goal.

“You can make a few corrections the day you write, but I am speaking of editing as your main assignment. It is best to edit the next day. If you write steadily, you must reread what you have written in order to continue. And if you try to edit while you know every word, you might catch a few errors, but you will also memorise it more firmly; by the time you finish the sequence or the article, you will not be able to judge anything. If you cannot tell what is good or bad about an article, you have over-stared. So if you cannot be objective the next day, do not start editing. Edit only when you know you are ready.

“Third, while writing, you must not question anything or doubt yourself. While editing, however, you are free to question everything, including whether to reconstruct the article totally or even whether to continue with it at all.

“Do not, however, start doubting for doubting’s sake. This is a common error; it is part of the mistake of thinking you must write the “perfect” article. If, as you edit your article, it seems good, but you think: “I don’t see any error, but what if I could do better?” – that can paralyse your judgment. The epistemological principle is that the zero does not exist. Just as in science you need some evidence to warrant a hypothesis, so in judging what you have written you should not ask: “I do not know how it could be improved, but what if it could be?” Question everything, but do not raise unwarranted doubts.

“In editing, there are two principles you must remember: ( 1 ) no judgment can be made out of context; and (2) you cannot do everything at once. Therefore, the subconscious also plays a part in editing, though you have to know how to use it. I recommend editing in layers, i.e., in several stages, by going over your first draft many times, from different aspects.”

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