REVISION ON MY MIND
A DRAFT ON REVISION
THE LATEST DRAFT
The hardest part about revision — this is what I woke up thinking today — the hardest part is to sleep on it. In the flush of the moment, two drafts in (or three, or seven, or ten) we might think: Done! We’re done! We did it! Then, all excited, or even only relieved, we might send the piece off that minute.
Chances are, though, what do you know, the next day we find a bunch of things we want to tweak, add, delete — words, phrases, paragraphs (we should’ve known better, we think; this always happens, every time we wind up apologizing (to the editor, the publisher, the journal), “Sorry, this version, not that”; or “Whoops, one last tiny fix” ) — sometimes those last little fixes, hugely important (to us anyway) don’t even make it to publication.
Therefore, tough as it is, we should force ourselves to wait. Overnight at least. Then, in the morning, we should read the pages out loud (again; for the umpteenth time; reading aloud is key to revising): it’s not just that we’ll catch the little stuff — awkward syntax, repetitions, a tic of phrasing or punctuation, a bad joke (a list of examples that doesn’t need to be as long as it is) — we might come up with a new idea altogether! Revision, after all, is not just about tidying up.
I’ve been thinking about revision, and I had a hunch I might find something useful in Patricia Hampl’s essay “Memory and Imagination” (from I Could Tell You Stories — her pretty-much-life-changing collection about writing nonfiction). I remembered a phrase from the essay — “To write one’s life is to live it twice” — if that’s true, I planned to say, we might as well revise. Why else bother to relive? But it turns out Hampl’s insights throughout are on task — no need to get cute. For example, she writes, “A careful first draft is a failed first draft.” And, of an actual first draft, she tells us, “The piece hasn’t found its subject. It isn’t yet about what it wants to be about.”
Here’s what I’ve discovered on the job (as an editor or on assignment, working for an editor): generally speaking, it’s the less experienced writer who is least likely to want to revise, whereas seasoned writers are typically grateful, sure enough of themselves to be able to say to a suggestion, “Gosh, thanks, good idea.”
Then, too, they’re the ones — experienced writers, I mean — who’ll come back with a draft that does more with an editorial tweak than the editor could ever have imagined. What those writers know? Revision is when the going gets good.
The basics we know:
Cool it with the modifiersWatch the abstractions Be more specific!Bring in the lens!Kill your darlings, of course —
And my absolute favorite, from Elmore Leonard: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
But so many authors insist they cross out more than they write, from Calvino, to Parker, to Nabokov, to Hemingway, who also said (in A Moveable Feast), “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted, and the part you omitted would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”
Which brings me to the reason I brought you here: revision is as much about adding as cutting, even if, per Hemingway’s suggestion, you wind up cutting all over again.
OR MAYBE JUST START HERE?
I once heard a writer give the most generous lecture —
What he did? He put a draft on the overhead projector — his own work in process up there on the screen, bigger than life and all marked up, arrows pointing in all directions, notes scrawled over and between the lines. It was a thing of beauty. Inspiring. Affirming. But he wasn’t just wanting to make us feel better. He had a point to make. The idea was that the lines on the page were elastic. They presented opportunity for revision. He showed us — anywhere he got interested (I think that’s what he said) — he could pull them apart. Mixing metaphors, if the space between sentences is a body of water, say, what’s to stop a writer from diving in? From paddling around, or swimming a lap, or going all the way to the bottom of the pool before coming back up?
A few years later, at a bookstore reading, I was reminded of that lecture when a famous novelist told a roomful of students and fans, “The only difference between me and you? I don’t show people my shitty drafts.” That was generous, too — for him to admit to shitty drafts. For him to insist the rest of us were capable of good ones. Still, another ingredient to revision might involve an early reader or two. Trusted readers can be a big help, in an ongoing way.
In my case, there’s the mentor who reminded me that questions are more interesting than answers.
And the one, two decades ago, who scribbled in the margins again and again: “Be smarter.” (Much as I hated hearing it then, I hear it still, every time I begin to revise.)
And the teacher who lopped off the last paragraph of every single essay. And the one who insisted I give her more scenes; and the colleague who reminded me to be generous with my readers, to keep them situated in place and time. And the editor who made a suggestion that brought a whole book into focus.
And — most recently, a week ago only, and the reason I’ve been thinking about revision so much — the friend who told me I’d buried the lede: “Your book starts here,” she said, pointing to a chapter in the middle of my manuscript. How right she was. As soon as she said it, I realized, yes, that will work. And the writing was suddenly fun again, more fun even than the first time around. Can you believe it? Revision is fun. (Especially once you know where to start.)
A long time ago — after a project had been rejected a gazillion times — a colleague scolded me for whining. “You’re lucky,” she said. “It’s not like you’re facing a blank page. You get to revise.” Granted, I had to find my way back to the material. I had to recall my original intentions; to remember what had moved me to write in the first place. Once I was able to do that, revising wasn’t a chore — it was absorbing, intense, addictive. It was the reason so many of us write in the first place.
Although. As addictive (compulsive, obsessive) as it is, what writers often wonder: how to know when we’re done? There’s a theory out there about moving commas and moving them back; changing words and changing them back; you get to that point, maybe you’re close to the end. For my part, I’d keep moving them around if I could. Therefore I’ve had to train myself, first to sleep on whatever it is, and then, finally, to let it go. But neither am I averse to revising post-publication. Ha. Sometimes it’s about whole-scale alterations — the kind that happen when we dive between the lines. Others, it’s flotsam that bogs me down.
Like, I remember many years ago preparing to give a public reading from my first book. For some reason, on that day anyway, my own prose appalled me. There I was at the kitchen table with my #2 pencil, crossing out, rearranging, complaining out loud the whole time: “Did I write this? I can’t believe I wrote this. This is awful, excessive, fatty” (and so on). “How could I have let this out of the house…?”
And then my husband told me something so comforting:
“Dinah, “he said, “it’s only the latest draft.” ___
Dinah Lenney wrote The Object Parade (Counterpoint Press) and Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir (University of Nebraska Press), and co-edited Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction with the late Judith Kitchen (W.W. Norton). Other work has appeared in a variety of publications including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, AGNI, Creative Nonfiction, the Paris Review Daily, and the Los Angeles Review of Books (aka LARB), where she serves as an editor-at-large. She’s a member of the core faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and her new book, Coffee, will be published by Bloomsbury in April 2020.