The other day I mentioned that writing questions (or vague observations) to myself in the margins of a draft rarely proves helpful when I sit down to actually type up the changes. What I find most useful (if I can’t definitively answer the question then and there) is to write the question and then list at least three possible answers (even if they’re silly).
Short form note to self:
When marking up my own work:
- identify the problem/ask the question and
- try to come up with three answers, even if they seem ridiculous.
When commenting on other people’s writing:
- identify the issue (what seems not to be working) and
- suggest at least one possible/indicative solution.
There are a few reasons for this:
- Simply asking a question or pointing out that a problem exists leaves me too much room for anxieties and misunderstandings.
“Seems ruthless” could indicate a word choice issue, or a book-length characterisation issue, a major plot problem, or a chance for an amusing miscommunication. “Seems ruthless — consider softening this sentence with body language” requires rather different editing from “Seems ruthless — nothing in this story is consistent with the character’s later declaration of love in the last chapter — change end or show reasons for actions throughout.”
- On the other hand, only giving solutions (without identifying what they’re meant to address) isn’t always helpful either.
A note like, “replace ‘mystical’ with ‘mysterious'” isn’t necessarily useful — especially when given by someone else, or after enough time has elapsed between making the comment and making the edits. I might not know (or remember) if the problem was that I used ‘mystical’ incorrectly, or overused it, or that the ‘ic’ sound was unpleasant, or that four syllables flowed more mellifluously than three in that particular sentence.
- A little lighthearted effort early on can save a lot of angst later.
- But this approach also takes the pressure off making those comments (to myself or on other people’s stories).
- I’m not imposing the One True Edit — just trying to illuminate the gap that needs to be addressed.
- On the other hand, I might have misidentified the problem, but the suggested solution could give me/the author an idea what the actual difficulty was (e.g., a perceived inconsistency in world-building might have been just a typo).
- The suggestions take the pressure off puzzling through problems when typing. Sometimes the right answer turns out to be in there after all, or clearly exists in the negative space between those ideas. At the very least, I’m much more likely to grasp the shape of the problem.
- But it still gives me choices and flexibility. It lets me quickly adapt to other changes in the manuscript, and leaves space to find more organic solutions, or simply to use vocabulary I now prefer (while still fixing the problem).
Some day I will consistently remember this.