Back in the 1980s, I wrote a computer program that would choose—at random—one of several sentence templates constructed with blanks rather like the sentences in the Mad Libs game. It would then fill in the blanks with nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs chosen—again at random—from user-supplied word lists. I called it a brainstorming program, but I used it to write poetry.
In the process, I discovered that the creative mind has two major components—the “popcorn mind” that generates raw ideas (most of them useless) and the critical mind that winnows the popcorn down to a small number of ideas worth working on. The popcorn was what my computer program provided. There is also, to be sure, the editorial mind that builds raw ideas up, tears them down, and rebuilds until a final product is achieved.
I. Editing: Creating by Destroying
The popcorn mind generates a lot of garbage. To use this garbage to be creative requires throwing away everything except the good stuff. The process is exactly the same as that of the sculptor who, confronted by a block of marble, removes everything that does not look like the sculpture he has in mind. For writers, this is the process called editing.
Editing may seem to be a destructive process. After all, it requires throwing away many, even most, of the ideas one comes up with. Yet editing is an essential part of the creative process, for it concentrates the effort of creation into one or a few gems that can sparkle all the more intensely for being freed of their drab and useless kin.
Bear in mind, however, that the creative process does not end with destruction. Once you have generated a suitable amount of raw material and edited it down to its shiniest components, you must still turn those components into a finished product. That is, you must build upon the gems you have extracted from the raw material before you can have the poem, story, paper, advertisement, or whatever that you wished to create in the first place. This building is the process of elaboration (see below).
What Is Editing?
Editing is one of the prime functions of the critical mind. It begins only after the popcorn mind has thrown up a selection of raw material–new combinations of ideas, images, or words. This is when the critical mind must winnow the combinations, discarding the obvious garbage and keeping those tidbits it thinks it can develop into something valuable.
Yet editing is not simply discarding the obvious garbage. That is simply the first and easiest step. It can also involve seeing that two bits of garbage are, if you but join them together, no longer garbage. This is what many sculptors do when they comb junkyards for bits of scrap metal which they can then fasten together to form striking statues. It is what collage artists do with scraps of wood and paper and fabric, with old doll parts and gears and photographs. Garbage plus garbage is not necessarily just a bigger pile of garbage; it can be genuine creative art.
If you wish to be verbally creative, joining bits of garbage together means taking two randomly generated sentences that individually make no sense and splicing them in such a way that they do make sense.
Consider the two computer-generated lines:
Surrender an weather an ambulance white!
A mist collide whose bountiful ambulance?
Individually, they are nonsense. Taken together, they are still nonsense. But they contain several images that, together, suggest a day when heavy fog kept an ambulance from answering emergency calls, or perhaps when a car or truck collided with a white ambulance which was difficult to see because of fog.
Editing is also the correction of grammar and the insertion of missing details, such as prepositions, pronouns, and even nouns and verbs. It can involve rearranging the parts of a sentence. It is, in general, the development or imposition of form, of structure, and therefore of sense. Applied to the first of the above two lines, it can give you:
The white ambulance surrendered to the weather.
So far, winnowing, discarding, and splicing are not things a computer can do. The day may come when editing, like popping, can be automated, but that day is not yet. For now, editing requires a human mind. More specifically, it requires a human mind with enough tolerance for ambiguity not to reject the product of brainstorming (human or computer) as so much random nonsense. That mind must be able to look at a strange sentence, paragraph, or idea and ask itself, “How can I make this make sense?”
Is Editing Difficult?
Does editing sound easy? It is. Yet many people still manage to have a great deal of trouble with it. The reason is the fear of self-destruction. In general, we generate the ideas we wish to edit ourselves, out of our own popcorn minds. They are therefore our own ideas, however bad they may be, and if editing demands their destruction, it is also demanding the destruction of our precious selves. It is no wonder that we resist this destruction, nor that–despite the apparent simplicity of the process–we find editing difficult.
One answer is never to edit your own ideas. Edit someone else’s instead, and let that someone else edit yours. This one of the functions of writers’ groups.
II. ELABORATING: CREATING BY DECORATING
Editing is essential to the creative process. However, editing of the sort discussed so far is a destructive thing. That is, it reduces pages to paragraphs and paragraphs to sentences. It is the opposite of padding. It therefore also fights your need to write something of a specific length, such as that three-to-five-page paper, typed, double-spaced, that is due in class on Tuesday.
There is a definite place in the creative process for adding instead of taking away. With writing, it comes in after you have chosen a title, outlined a paper, taken notes, or selected a heading for a piece of a paper. It comes in when you have written the first line of a paper, or of a paragraph. It comes in again when you have edited a rough draft down to nothing, or at least to too little to meet the requirements of an assignment.
To create, you begin with a bare-bones idea–a topic. Then you expand upon that topic. Decorate it. Add frills. That is, elaborate upon it. Then look for the unnecessary garbage, and edit it out. Elaborate upon what remains, and edit it again. Repeat until you can find no garbage to remove and think of nothing essential to add. The result, if all goes as it should, will be a paper, poem, story, or other creation which needs no more work. It will be of the perfect length, with no fat and no empty spaces.
What I have just described is that endlessly recursive process known as revision, which writing teachers say is among the hardest aspects of writing to teach. But it is essential. Creative thinking necessarily has to begin with an idea. This germ or kernel of creation may be a title, a heading in an outline, or some short statement of topic or idea. It may even be what you have left after editing. But creative thinking does not end once you have come up with an idea. That idea must be refined by editing, elaborating, editing again, and elaborating some more.
Creation is thus work. Indeed, it is painful work, for editing demands destroying the self, and elaboration requires telling yourself that, no, you have not blown your creative wad by coming up with the initial idea–you are not done; your idea is not adequately developed; you cannot stop now; you must keep slaving away. The pain is made worse when your editing convinces you that all your ideas are worthless–as it is all too likely to do, since to edit, you must throw away so many of your ideas.
Such feelings may seem more likely to afflict people who aren’t terribly creative or verbal. But don’t kid yourself: Even the most creative and verbal of all can react in such ways, at least some of the time.
Fortunately, there are several tactics that you can use to make elaboration easier. Three of them are: explaining, arguing, and asking the next question.
All three of these keys to successful elaboration share a single aim, never to let a reader say, “Hah?” That is, if something you have written seems likely to puzzle your readers, to make them wonder what you are talking about or ask a question, or to prompt some related but diversionary thought, forestall them. Answer the question. Cut off the diversion, or exploit it. Explain yourself. By the time you are done, your initial idea will be thoroughly elaborated.
Explaining simply means making yourself clear. The techniques are the classic ones of exposition: description, comparison, contrast, giving examples and definitions, classifying and dividing, and laying out causes and effects. See any textbook of composition or technical writing for all the details you can stand.
And then add one more key to clarity that is often ignored in the textbooks: Be sure that you are saying what you mean, and that you mean what you say. That is, choose and spell your words carefully. Don’t, for instance, say, “He poured over the papers,” unless you mean he poured syrup over them. The proper word is “pored,” as if he were soaking the news in through his pores. (And speaking of papers, both news and student, they contain dozens of other such gaffes every day.)
Sometimes the best way to develop an idea is to argue with it. Pretend that someone is trying desperately to convince you that your topic is a good idea, and fight back with all the reasons why it is a bad idea. Bring in suitable facts, quote authorities, appeal to emotion or authority. Or turn all this around, and you try desperately to convince someone else of the idea’s worth. Either approach can be a very effective way to turn an idea into something larger. It should be familiar to you from politics, environmental activism, and other “cause” arenas.
Asking the Next Question
In the essay on “The Creative Process,” we discussed how a piece of writing can be organized as a list of questions that require answers. The list of questions is a kind of outline. The list of answers is the paper or magazine article or book.
But asking the next question is also a useful way to fill in the details as you write. It is a guide to thinking analytically, and to the pursuit of implications. As I said in my book How to Write a Readable Business Report (Homewood, IL: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1983):
“You have stated a fact. What is that fact’s significance? What additional facts do you or your readers need to interpret it? You see this principle in action most simply in any piece of writing phrased as a series of questions and answers
You should always query yourself, your meaning, your vocabulary, your sequence of thoughts, your facts. Phrase your questions like so:
Who am I to write this report? What is my expertise or authority?
Who am I talking to? What are my audience’s concerns, needs, interests, and abilities? Am I meeting them?
Am I saying what I mean?
Am I confusing my readers or raising questions in their minds?
Where do my thoughts lead? Should I follow them? Or should I, in the interests of brevity, cut them off? How can I cut them off without upsetting my readers?
And so on. There is always one more question. If you [ask it] consistently, your writing and thinking will come a lot closer to being smooth, clear, useful, and effective. You will prevent your reader from interrupting the flow of thoughts into his or her head while he stops reading to say, ‘Hah? What does he mean by…? But what about… ? Who cares about…?’ Such interruptions impair effectiveness. You must do all you can to forestall them.”