You can save some of the sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-won. You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now. (Are you a woman, or a mouse?) — Annie Dillard in The Writing Life
Yesterday, I finished a book on writing. Or I should say, I finished a good, solid draft, a hard-won draft that was carved out of the wood of an idea in minutes during a crazy busy period of my life.
Today, I will review the 33 pages of this brief idea, and I will change almost every word. If I am lucky, a nugget of idea will be clear, and I’ll be polishing. But what I may see – to use Dillard’s metaphor – is the shimmer of a vein that leads into something still buried. I will mostly likely need my pick-ax, not just my soft cloth.
I would rather skip this part.
But I would be a lazy writer if I did. Writing is hard work. Every time. The number of nuggets grows with practice, and I see more veins in my work now than I did 10 or 5 years ago.
Still, revision takes a ruthlessness that I don’t like. Shedding the blood of darlings, following Faulkner’s advice is tough – true. But the toughest thing for me is to realize that all the clarity I thought I carried into those words is nothing more than a muddy puddle. I always have a lot of filtering to do.
I have found in the words of others over the years a few things that help me.
- Step back. When I’m on a tight deadline, as I am now, I may only get one day away, but even in that one day, my brain begins to forget what I wrote so I can see it new. Or new-ish. If I have more time – and I leave lots of time to revise my full-length books – I put the manuscript away for a few weeks before I revise. Then, when I come back, it’s like I’m reading someone else’s work.
- Slow down. As I begin, I read slowly. I read out loud if necessary. I need to be able to understand the work that each sentence is actually doing, not what I intended it to do. I go cold about what I wanted to say, and I analyze to see if I actually said it.
- Change formats. When I revise, I print everything out (two-sided). The use of paper and ink is worth it to me to be sure I get a fresh take on what I’ve said. I read slowly, page by page, with a pen in hand. I mark up the whole thing, move bits around, add, cross-through. If the manuscript doesn’t look like it went through a pen-induced massacre, I haven’t done enough.
- Open hands. For me, this part is hardest. I let go of what I have decided the work will be. I let go of my original intention. I let go of what I think is most important, and I let the work tell me what needs to be said. I used to think that statements like this were a bunch of mumbo-jumbo – I’m in charge, and my work does what I want it to do. But I’ve learned that most of the time, some part of me beyond my conscience understanding, a part connected to a Presence beyond me, knows what is most needed and uses me as a tool to say it. My job, then, in revision is to find what is hidden in the walls of my own intention and mine it, pulling the silver shimmer into the light.
It really would be glorious if the Muses of inspiration just handed us texts fully-formed, Venuses of language sprung whole into being. But in my experience, that doesn’t happen for anyone. Instead, writing requires work.
And if you ask me, the work refines not only the words but the writer, too, and goodness knows, I need refining.
What do you do when it’s time to revise? Any strategies that are particularly helpful to you?
I’ll be sending my brief book on writing out to everyone who subscribes to this blog or my newsletter sometimes in August, so if you’d like a free copy, please subscribe here – http://eepurl.com/bdmYif. When you do, you’ll get another book free, right away; Our Best 10 includes writing advice from some of the best writers I know. I hope you enjoy both books.