Production vs. Editing

Do you ever tell yourself your work is crap when you’re starting a new illustration? Do you fall in love with a thumbnail you intended to be loose, and spent the next two hours polishing it, giving it eyes and shading and stubble? Do you sketch something, decide it’s crap, sketch another thing, decide that’s crap too, make a tea, pet your hamster, scroll through Instagram and weep?

If so, you might be falling into the trap of trying to produce and edit at the same time.

You know the feeling.

You get excited about some idea you have and start to create stuff on the page. You start to produce. But sooner than you’d like, and without invitation, the editor – that rational, efficient part of you – kicks down the door and starts to measure and poke at what you’ve made and demand you shorten the nose, make it a castle instead of a house and why don’t you use more colors because everyone likes more colors! 

Now the part of you that was just making stuff cowers and starts to make all the changes to satisfy your client tyrannical editor.

The editor wins, but the results aren’t so good.

You’ve spent two hours on what was supposed to be a loose thumbnail and now, after a bagel and coffee, you realize that though it looks pretty, the idea in the thumbnail isn’t quite right for the creative brief. 

Panicked, your rational brain spits out some post hoc rationalizations, trying to fit your beautiful, overgrown thumbnail to the brief and fooling yourself into thinking it can still work. If you swallow your rationalizations, it makes the rational part of yourself that much stronger and muddies your sense of what an actual good idea looks like versus one you’ve fooled yourself into believing is such.

The other common result of trying to produce and edit at the same time is that you create something that’s stiff and technical but lacks all poetry. You’ve driven with the brakes on again and nothing in your picture is alive.

Both these outcomes drive you nuts.

Separate Production from Editing

What we might try to do instead is leave the production side alone when we’re creating, and invite the editing side to the table once we’ve already made a pile of stuff.

The production side is that weird art kid in us who puts super glue on her hands and mimicks gargoyles. The editor side is the poised, organized and calculating adult who we’ve pretty much let run the show because she gets us to meetings on time.

Good ideas, original ideas, all come from wandering in the lands of uncertainty. That weird art kid in us is good at navigating in such places – she’s willing to test boundaries, ask embarrassing questions and tinker with conventional ideas. She sees the potential instead of the threat in what’s unknown.

The land of certainty is boring by contrast, and it’s where the editor is most comfortable. It’s where everyone copies everyone else and everything is known and calculated in advance.

When the weird kid is paired with the organized adult, the kid always loses. If we’re slave to the super-organized adult, we’ll be unwilling to risk uncertainty in creating our work and there will be no chance we’ll go anywhere new.

So we need to split them up. We need the weird art kid to do her thing – create as much crap as possible without being bothered. Then we need to invite the editor into the room to survey the mess and pull what’s useful out of it.

Now we might have a shot at creating something original, something good that will surprise us.

Production

Enter the weird art kid into the bare room.

We’re producing now, and there’s nothing stopping us from exploring the strangest, most appalling ideas we can think up. Because the editor is not in the room, we can loosen our grip on ourselves. We can have a glass of water, a beer, some wine. There’s no one telling us what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

We sit down and make stuff. These production sessions are based on quantity, so we set ourselves some arbitrary target like two thousand words, fifty thumbnails or twenty sketches. If we suspect our editor is peeping through the keyhole and breathing loudly in the doorway, we give ourselves just enough time to get through our task so we’re not tempted to fill in details or ruminate. We might open the door a crack and tell the editor she is welcome to come back tomorrow as we’ve certainly not forgotten her, and might she enjoy some refreshments in the waiting room down the hall?

Editing

Some time later the weird art kid exits the room and closes the door quietly behind her. She disappears to eat a mint chocolate chip ice cream at Morgenstern’s as a reward.

We let the vacant room sit for a day or two before inviting our editor in.

What horror.

Quelle horreur! – according to my seventh grade French textbook.

The bare room isn’t bare anymore – it’s littered with crap. 

Faces sketched in crayon on bits of paper, elongated arms, butts, dirty rabbits and sexy plants—it’s a complete mess. Now it’s the editor’s task to look through everything and pull out the gems which are well hidden in the mess but not so hard to spot against a background of crap. Most of it is unusable, but a thumbnail here and there, a sentence that suggests something of a melody—can all be kept.

It’s when we don’t expect most of what we create to be any good and are willing to throw most of it away do we start to develop an instinct for what’s really worthwhile. When we divide production and editing, we’re respecting the fact that 1) we don’t know what we want to say with our work at the outset and 2) to get to our best, we have to be willing to create and then throw away our worst.

The editor comes out of the room with a handful of gems and now we can start the cycle again, creating better and better work as a result and getting deeper and deeper into uncharted waters, surprising ourselves with the treasures we find.

Waste is Good

When students take my course, they’re invariably concerned about getting clients and putting a portfolio together—quickly. I don’t want to trivialize the importance of getting clients or having a good portfolio, but in our rush to do everything correctly and efficiently we forget that there needs to be a great deal of waste. We often make a few drawings, post them online, get no response, then assume they suck and no one wants them. This is because we haven’t wasted enough. When we don’t waste enough, we don’t find out what’s actually good enough.

The more we brave to create, the more we can recognize a good idea when we have one and the sharper that instinct gets. The less we produce, the more we tend to fool ourselves into believing all the stuff we make is pretty decent because we have an undifferentiated instinct for good or crap.

Separate production from editing, and both will enhance instead of inhibit each other, leading to better, more frequent creative output and a nose for gems.

Beini is a full time creative freelancer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her clients include Carnegie New York, International Center of Photography, Al Jazeera English, National Geographic and Mastercard, among others. She gave a talk on how creatives can learn to make a living and “play like yourself” at B&H Photo in October. She has also given a workshop on freelancing at Creative Mornings.

You can find an in-depth, step-by-step system for leveraging client work to develop your personal creative voice in my five week course.

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