Guest blog by Kathryn Robinson of Cornerstones

I’ve been trying to think of a good metaphor for the strange journey I’ve had as an editor starting to write; for the process of moving from teacher to pupil; from feeling like I know all about my subject to knowing I know nothing.

Unsurprisingly, I binned my first, oh, 20 or 25 ideas.

Then I hit on it. Imagine a midwife who’s spent her life delivering babies, who understands babies and mothers almost better than she understands herself, who plays her part in the birth, but is only ever behind the scenes.

She gets pregnant. Everyone she knows trills, ‘Oh, you’ll be alright! This must be a walk in the park for you, lucky thing.’ She nods and smiles, digging her nails into her palms. She knows she ought to be the best mum in the world, but inside she’s so terrified of getting it wrong that she’s suddenly paralysed about the simplest of decisions. Home birth or hospital? Disposable nappies or organic palm-fibre pants? Pink or Blue? She gets to the point where people asking her about the baby makes her heart lurch.

Because everything’s different when it’s your baby.

I have always had huge admiration for anyone who finishes a novel. Editing requires a similar level of focus, and it can also be a very creative process, but even with those projects you feel most editorially involved in, there’s always an element of detachment because ultimately it’s not your creation. But a calm, capable editor doesn’t necessarily translate to a confident writer.

Personally, my writing process goes something like the following:

Have an idea. Fall in love with it. Rush to get something down before it disappears. Start writing in a pink haze of passion. Finish a chapter. Re-read.

Spot all the things that aren’t perfect (which I think of as ‘mistakes’ even though rationally I know that at this stage they’re a perfectly natural part of the creative process). Edit.

Write a bit more. Re-read. Spot all the other cock-ups. Edit. Re-read.

Feel sort of satisfied.

But by this time I’ve lost momentum. The initial excitement of the idea has receded, giving me time to GET SCARED. What if it’s not good enough? What if I’ll never be able to finish it? And of course, the mere act of thinking all these things is enough to make them come true. I file the idea under ‘to be continued’, and I hide under my bed for six months hoping that no-one will ask me about it.

You can be the best, most fastidious writer in the world, but it means nothing if you can’t finish the blooming thing. And at this early stage in the writing process, I need to learn to set perfectionism, self-doubt and fear aside. One author I know has a sign on her computer saying ‘Write Crap’. Maybe I need one of these.

Anyway, the more I think about my metaphor, the more I realise it is true. Ideas are like babies, in so many ways. They’re messy, beautiful, flawed and fragile, and they need time and understanding – not just criticism – to flourish.

Kathryn Robinson is Managing Editor of the Cornerstones Literary Consultancy


Roderic Vincent said...

Lovely post, Kathryn, and so true. In the last few years I've learnt many things about writing a novel, but more than anything I've learnt how difficult it is. There's a doublethink required when the only way to get it right is to forget about getting it right.

Best wishes for your baby.

Anonymous said...

It's probable that, as an editor, you are over aware of all those errors of style that critical people see in a piece of writing. I like the idea though and think it could work better for a beginner in the field were it written as a short story. Then you'd have the idea recorded and be able to redraft with ease. Later you could develop it into a novel but there isn't a huge amount in it at the moment for a novel. My humble opinion of course and very enjoyable post but see no reason why you wouldn't be able to come up with a novel sooner or later.

Caroline Green said...

'I need to learn to set perfectionism, self-doubt and fear aside.'

Yup, this really resonates with me.

I'm going to make myself a 'write crap' note and stick it to the computer too.
Thanks for such an honest and inetresting post, Kathryn.

Gillian McDade said...

Great post, Kathryn - thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

Old Kitty said...


Awwwww so, so, so true!

And isn't that just the start? The babies grow up and need so much care, help, attention, nourishment then they need to leave the nest and find homes - the hardest, hardest, hardest part!


Have a lovely Easter!

Take care

Debs Riccio said...

Kathryn, a great, encouraging post - it's always a tremendous source of positivity to see that we're not alone in our thought processes and frequent crises of confidence. Am also a newly converted fan of 'write crap' and will now make myself a little sign saying just that - thanks!

DT said...

Another name for crap is fertile soil!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Kathryn, it must be really, really hard for an editor to begin writing - almost counter-intuitive, like starting at the wrong end of the project. I've found myself in this place when I began a new novel after finishing an old one - my head was still in 'critical' mode and kept picking everything to pieces. The concept of the Shitty First Draft is the only way through, I think. As Sebastian Faulks puts it:
'You give yourself six weeks. You write 2,000 words a day and that will give you the required length. Don't stop. Don't agonise. Don't try to correct your prose as you go along. Don't worry too much about the details. You can always revise them later...'
Best of luck with the new baby.

Fionnuala said...

Note to self: Write Crap.

Thanls for your time as always Kathryn.

Paul Lamb said...

Bill Cosby once said that the only people who can tell you exactly how to raise children are the ones who don't have them, which is to say, all of their advice is useless. I'm coming to find that is mostly true about writing as well. You have to step into the breach, keep the faith, and keep at it despite your self doubt. At least, that's how I do it.

Anonymous said...

"Write crap". Think I can manage that one...
Thanks Kathryn.

Ruth Jerman-Collis said...

Dear Kathryn, you have encouraged me to write way beyond the form of words in your kindness and encouraging way of editing. I believe we must write about what we experience so maybe you should write about how it feels to be an editor. An editor is probably most critical of themselves as thye can see what others can't and that in itself may block a million creative ideas from every becoming one in reality but I hope that you do.

Anonymous said...

very interesting, thanks