Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament…. [I]f you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’ (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in the 1916 book On the Art of Writing)
Writing Needs Revision
When I taught composition and creative writing to high school students, many of them felt that the first draft they spit out was enough. Boom. Done.
They did not want to go back and revise. But writing needs revision. So they learned in my class that writing is a process.
Now, it’s true that they had, at that point of arriving at a first draft, successfully worked their way through several stages of writing—from pre-writing and development stages to the first draft.
But they weren’t done yet.
No, they needed to go through editing, revision, proofreading and peer review stages—which might lead to more revision and proofreading—before ever submitting their project to me.
That’s how it worked in Mrs. Kroeker’s writing class.
Because that’s how it works in the real world. I wanted to train them to take a second, third, and fourth look at their writing.
I can’t remember the last time something I wrote came out perfectly the first time. Probably never. I fiddle with emails and Facebook updates, so you’d better believe I fiddle with my writing projects.
I want them to be the best they can be for any editor or agent—and eventually, of course, the reader. So I revise. I expand in some places and murder my darlings in other places.
And at various stages, I get input from others, because an objective set of eyes is like gold to a writer. We get so close to our projects we stop thinking or seeing clearly. We miss glaring errors and tiny blips. We think it flows, but our first readers find it choppy or confusing.
Don Your Editor Hat
Before I pull in others, I start with my own eyes. I can edit as I go a little bit, but toward the end, I actually don my editor hat—I don’t literally don a hat, but I could if I wanted to. I have a nice Maxwell Perkins-ish fedora on hand, should I need to fully focus on editing.
When we wear this figurative—or literal—hat, we start reading more critically. We look for hot spots and trouble zones. We read to discover how well a section flows or how believable our characters are. We address the glaring errors and try to spot and fix the tiny blips.
Reform Your Work
Alice LaPlante in her book The Making of a Story (affiliate link) quotes Raymond Carver:
It doesn’t take that long to do the first draft of the story, that usually happens in one sitting, but it does take a while to do the various versions of the story. I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less than ten or twelve drafts.
LaPlante herself goes on to say, “First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it.”
Don’t be afraid to go back into your work and reform it—to revise it.
The word “revision” comes from Latin, meaning to “see again.” When we stick the editor hat on, we’re trying to maintain an objective eye and see our work afresh.
Try This to See Again
Step away from your project for a while—as long as you can manage.
Come back to it and read it aloud.
Flag any spots where you stumble over a word or have to re-read a sentence. Maybe you stop or pause because you didn’t include appropriate punctuation.
If you realize a scene doesn’t seem clear or a character’s dialogue feels unrealistic or a point in your essay is underdeveloped, look at it again. Can you expand your point with a story or statistic? Could you swap in a simpler word for the one that tripped your tongue?
Does It Sound Like Writing?
In the April 22, 1985 issue of Newsweek, Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
As you know, I’m a pretty straightforward communicator. If my writing sounds like I’m trying too hard, I look at it twice, three times, maybe four. I read it aloud. I read it to my spouse. I ask a friend what she thinks. In that sense, I align with Leonard and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. No “extraneous ornamentation.” Besides, if I’m questioning it that much, it’s probably crossed a line and it’s time to slash up that manuscript and murder my darlings.
However, at risk of contradicting myself, I do like writing that pleases my ear and transcends everyday chatter—writing that makes me think more clearly, see more vividly, be more discerning. Sometimes writing that achieves these goals will sound a little like writing.
If my writing achieves those ends—if something I’ve composed can help others have a more clear, vivid, discerning view of the world because of the way I expressed myself—then maybe it stays.
That’s why revision—starting with self-editing—is so needed.
Don’t be afraid of the work. Look at it, and look at it again, to see what’s working and what’s not. With revision, you’ll find the best way to say it.
To listen to the full episode, click on the podcast player above or use subscription options below.
- Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s book On the Art of Writing (available free through Bartleby.com)
- Vanity Fair article about “Genius,” the film about Thomas Wolfe and his editor, Maxwell Perkins (featuring a big photo of Colin Firth as Perkins, wearing his fedora indoors, at his desk, like any editor should at least consider doing)
- The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante (Amazon affiliate link)
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