Process, not product

It's surprising how often I forget this, but when it comes to work, almost everything is a draft.

This shouldn't be a epiphany to someone who works as an editor. The entire job of editing is an acknowledgment that no human product is ever perfect: that there are always corrections that can be made, points of view that can be included, typos or incorrect cross-references or images accidentally overlaid on text. This is why in book and journal publishing, at least, there are several different layers of people who put their hands (and eyes) on the manuscript: because no one pair (hands or eyes) can pick up everything.

In a sense, your physiology works against you: your eye is designed to make sense of the myriad competing signals it picks up every millisecond. One way it does that is to gloss over the disjuncts in those messages, smoothing them out before they become a part of your conscious thought. That's the principal behind the puzzles that write a statement by substituting a jumble of numbers and symbols for the letters that would ordinarily be used. As it turns out, your mind CAN decipher, fairly easily and quickly, what is being conveyed, because its whole purpose is to make sense of a massive amount of frequently incoherent data. Your eye will do the same thing when editing, skipping over the tiny pieces that disturb the flow of sense.

So mistakes are inevitable. We build bulwarks against them by slowing down, instituting checkpoints, and bringing in other people. We create a process.

I'm not going to diminish the feeling of utter euphoria that you get when you produce a piece of writing that "comes together." There's no better sensation. The only thing that comes close is the consuming absorption of putting together that story—and the fact is, over the course of your life, you'll have that experience of absorption far more than the experience of euphoria. Nor will the euphoria last: sweet as it is (and it is sweet), in a few hours or days you will notice that there are typos. Or you will realize that you made an assumption you weren't aware of but is incorrect. Or you will hear some information that inexplicably never came up during interviews or research that changes the picture you have sketched.

That's because, no matter how many bulwarks we build, they are never enough. You do what you can, and you learn to love the process.

In some idle trolling of the Interwebs the other day, I stumbled across one of the best illustrations of this principal I've ever encountered: this Medium article called "10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered." We can spend so much time focusing on the product that we lose sight of the process—and without the process, very little of value can be produced.

Most of what you write is going to get thrown out, and the best thing you can do is get comfortable with that. When I'm writing an article, I usually have a few documents going at once—some with quotes or excerpts of transcripts, one with a couple versions of a lede, and sometimes scraps of paper or post-it notes with reminders or points to work in. The final version is dwarfed by the material that has been thrown out, whether that's information or subpar sentences...and that's even given that I generally write stories in a linear fashion instead of piecemeal.

As Madeleine L'Engle said, "Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it." You may never come to love this work, but until you respect it (by which I mean respecting the process), the journey will be so daunting that it may hardly seem worthwhile to begin.