“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” -Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
You’ve probably never thought to ask for editing tips from a woodcarver. I normally wouldn’t, either. Yet this past week, I had a little time to spend on my ongoing woodcarving project–a woodland-themed chess set that will likely take forever and a day to complete. As I sat outside chipping away at my little cube of wood, I realized that woodcarving and editing have some surprising similarities.
Creative endeavors often speak to one another. The basics of creating something useful or meaningful or lovely jump across the boundaries between different mediums. And when you indulge in different art forms, the principles of one art can offer helpful reminders for the other.
So here are 3 Editing Tips from a Woodcarver:
1. Start with your rough-out (and don’t be discouraged by it!):
The first step in turning a block of wood into a bird, or horse, or (in my case) a mushroom, is to rough out the general shape of your piece. You lop off corners, carve out chunks, and usually end up with an ugly mass that only slightly resembles your finished product. The wood is rough with splinters and frayed edges. But that’s to be expected. The rough-out is just a template of what’s to come, so no one expects it to be perfect.
When it comes to editing, our first drafts act as our rough-outs. They’re the beginning stage, rough-hewn and maybe a little ugly. It can be discouraging to read through the result of long hours of writing only to discover many flaws that still need to be fixed. What we must remember is that the first draft is just the general shape of our stories; just our template of what’s to come. Think it of it as the necessary, unavoidable first step and keep going forward.
(And if you’re one of those people with perfect first drafts, please send us mere mortals the name of your muse. We’d love to meet her.)
2. Cut. Cut, and chip, and carve away everything you don’t need:
Once you finish your rough-out, you can carve with more confidence. You cut away everything unnecessary to your piece, slowly excavating your vision from the wood. Big cuts, little cuts, long cuts, short cuts. Every change you make in carving is done by taking away. You can’t add more wood, you can’t move sections of wood around. You can only subtract what you don’t need. Woodcarving is the art of discerning the essential from the nonessential, and creating something beautiful from what’s left.
In editing, we have a little more freedom. We can add more words to our block if needed. We can shift paragraphs and chapters around. Even so, the ability to cut away anything inessential to our story makes our work infinitely stronger.
3. Step back and look at the big picture periodically.
One of the final steps in carving is smoothing out the surface. Smoothing and rounding wood, in a way that looks natural, requires working gradually. You can’t focus solely on one spot; you have to work from one side to the other. Each cut blends into the next, starting at a distance and working softly toward the spot that needs to be fixed. If you don’t keep the big picture in mind, you can end up cutting away too much without realizing it, or creating stark edges that look unnatural.
In editing, it’s easy to make changes that cause problems in other areas. We can labor over one scene or chapter, getting it just right, only to discover that now it doesn’t fit the chapters surrounding it. As we edit, we have to make sure we step back occasionally and look at the bigger picture. Our changes need to blend into each other and make the story flow.
Bonus Tip: Have Patience with Yourself
Editing, like woodcarving, takes time. If you rush the process, you miss the opportunity to polish your piece to the best of your ability. Have patience with yourself and your work; allow yourself time to check over the details. That way when the times comes, and you decide to call your work complete, you can feel confident that you’ve done your best.
Now that I’ve shared my thoughts, I’d like to hear yours. In what ways do your hobbies speak to your writing?