Monday, September 22, 2014


“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”―Raymond Chandler.

Revision is your safety net. It will keep you from splattering on the ground. Revision introduces you to yourself as a writer. You get to know your tendencies, good and bad. We all misstep. Account for this in your process, and don't be ashamed of it.

I have learned the most about my writing through the trial and error of revision. When you're inside of a draft, a first draft especially, you can't see it for what it is, just maybe what you want it to be, if you even know what that is yet. It is only when you step back that you can take the measure of what you've done.

Sometimes writers eschew revising their work to preserve its authenticity. They argue that whatever else their draft might be, it is true. They have captured something raw and from the gut, or heart, or whatever organ was liveliest at the time of composition, and their work should remain untouched to maintain that experience. In fact, they are not wrong in this. Not wrong in principle.

I've tried writing straight out of the emotional moment. Tried riling up my gut and sicking it on the page. The problem I saw when I looked back, though, was that while my work certainly seemed like it came from an emotional person, it did not evoke that emotion in a reader. It did not craft the scene in a precise and believable way, or even in an interesting way. Some smart, cold editing helped to fix that. So did throwing out a great deal and trying it over again with a sober stomach.

Who are you writing for? If at least part of your answer is “other people,” you owe it to them to make your work as good as it can be. The first draft can always be for you. Wholly for you. Either just the experience or that separate saved copy on your desktop, every feeling and intention captured in time. But thereafter, roll up your sleeves.

This doesn't mean you have to revise your work until it is without blemish. A worthwhile goal, that, but nonetheless unobtainable. There is no perfect in art, only better for me or better for you.

Eventually you have to call it – time of death, date/time, and move on. If the story doesn't get published, maybe in five or ten years you open up its drawer and discover now you know how to breathe life into it. Either way, wrestling with the peice has made you better. You're stronger now than when you began the struggle. Always.

So struggle mightily and mindfully. Don't be complacent in your process and call it authenticity. Don't shrug off honing your work out of some half-baked sense of snaring “true emotion.” That sort of dull writing never cut straight to a reader's heart and left a mark.

The best short story I ever wrote I revised three or four times over the same number of years, adding to it and rearranging and thematicising – all the proper embellishments any good student of the craft should fritter away at. Intending to look over what I had done, I started reading the first draft by mistake. That draft was the best of them all. Flawed, but the cracks were so thin they took nothing away from the rest. It was compact, simple, and playfully succeeded at what it set out to do. This, a story I wrote in two days?  But I took the time to know it.

And there you have it. Not wrong in principle.

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