Write Five, Change Seven

“Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” – Collette

One of the things I constantly have to reinforce in my students is the value of the writing process, particularly revision. They want that one poof of magic where everything pours out and then they don’t want to look at it again. Not to be a hypocrite, I will admit I find myself guilty of the same crime. Somewhere the untapped creativity should flow forth and in a rush of transcendence, words should gush from my mind to the page. I think most people who write have had those times. It all seems so easy–you don’t have to plan anything, you just take a sliver of an idea and zone out. An hour later you have a story. Eureka!

While this is a wonderful experience, freewriting (which is essentially what that is), is only one part of the writing process. Teaching Freshman Comp, I have actually come to grimace at the use of the phrase Writing Process (the same way I grimace at Textual Substantiation). However, as fundamental as it may seem, as writers we have to remember The Process, if only to help us through those times when there is no inspiration or gush.More than that, The Process helps us hone our skills, making us better at what we do.

A writer may have a good head for plot, or a way of stringing words together, or if they are lucky, both. Where The Process comes in is being able to identify strengths and weaknesses, both in the work and in the writer. Sounds easy, yes? If only it were.

Being able to access your own writing is a difficult thing. Sometimes you may not recognize those weaknesses. Sometimes you may not want to. Sometimes you may be too close to really see what’s going on.

The first step in learning to revise your own work is to acknowledge that you and your work are not perfect. Set the piece aside for a few days once you’ve finished it. Forget about it. Then go back. Make yourself a check list of basic components of writing: plot, character, setting, tone, point of view, tense, pacing. Look at how those things work separately and how they work together. Make notes as you read, as if you were reading a work written by someone else.

Then get your pen out and start revising. It may be hard at first.We love our work (which we should). We don’t want to tell it that it’s ugly. But sometimes it is. Part of the revising process is not only recognizing flaws but being willing to change them. Keep in mind that the revision may not be much better; at least you tried it and it may lead to further discovery.

For example, there’s a story I’ve been working on for some time. It’s been through several revisions, particularly tense revisions. It seems like it has gone from past to present and back again half a dozen times. Every time I would come back to it, I would change the tense. I just couldn’t make up my mind. Finally, I asked myself why I was so flaky on committing to one or the other. It was then I realized it was because I hadn’t really clarified the major themes of the story. Sure I’d outlined some ideas about what I wanted to convey, but I hadn’t really articulated them for myself. Once I did that, the tense seemed obvious.

Revising is a critical thinking skill that, like throwing a ball, needs to be practiced to become more effective. This is where writing buddies or writing groups can be wonderful. We see mistakes in other works before we see it in our own. The temptation, then, is to rely on other people to point out all your issues. I am blessed to have a number of sounding boards for my writing; however, when I send things to someone else to read, it is usually at least the third or fourth draft. I’ve been through the work myself for content, style, and errors before I send it to them.

Aside from the actual act of revision to develop the skill, I suggest reading. Read as much as you can to help you get a feel for good writing. Thumb through the books listed under Sources for Writers.

Now get to work.

“I can’t write five words but that I change seven.” Dorothy Parker

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