Learning the Art of Revision

Note:  This makes references to the previous post about ‘The Muse and the Editor’, and is essentially ‘Part 2’ of that discussion.

It’s sometimes said that half of the art of writing is the art of revision.  When it comes to the quality and originality of what your muse brings to you, I think there may be a certain amount of ‘talent’ that you either have or don’t have.  But developing a good editor is primarily a matter of hard work and acquiring the necessary skills.  You can learn to revise–and to be an accomplished wordsmith, you must learn to revise.

There are plenty of myths and pieces of misinformation floating around about the craft of writing.  One over-quoted phrase is “Kill your darlings”, which is attributed to William Faulkner–though he may have borrowed it from another source–and which has been echoed emphatically by Steven King.  It’s one of those things some writers bandy about as if they feel that saying it shows how mature and sophisticated they are.  But in reality it has limited application and is too often misinterpreted. What I dislike most about it is that it implies that writers can’t learn to appraise their own work (although that may not have been the original intent at all).  If that were true, they could never learn to edit their own work, which, of course, is nonsense.

The word ‘darling’ is meant to refer to something (or someone) you love and feel proud of–and there should never be anything wrong with feeling that way about something you’ve created.  I’m not saying there aren’t occasions when a misguided young writer–usually in their teens or early twenties–becomes infatuated with some overblown passage they’ve put a very self-conscious effort into constructing; it happens.  But as long as you continue to practice writing–and continue to read well-written prose–it won’t be long before you don’t like the things that don’t work.  And the things that you love really will be your best writing–and your best writing definitely belongs in the story.  Here’s a good post on this topic in another writing blog; I think Palmer hits the nail on the head when she reasons that if it’s something you like, your readers will probably like it too: http://wendypalmer.com.au/2008/09/25/writing-rules-misapplied-kill-your-darlings/

Something else to consider is that sometimes when a piece of writing that you love just doesn’t seem to fit, it could be because the material around it needs to be cut or rearranged, not because the passage itself needs to be deleted.  Maybe you don’t need to dispatch your ‘darling’; maybe you need to clear away what’s smothering it.  Or the passage in question might belong in another part of the book, or even in another book or short story.  But there should never be a reason to discard your best work–plain old common sense will tell you that would be self-defeating.  The goal is to learn to cultivate those ‘moments of brilliance’ until everything you write is the best that you can do.  While attaining perfection may be unrealistic, there’s no reason you can’t strive to develop a solid set of skills that enable you to consistently produce high quality work.

I’m going to use Ursula K. Le Guin and her novel, Lavinia, as an example.  (I often refer to her as my ‘idol’–I hope she wouldn’t find that too annoying!) 😮  Le Guin had written over twenty novels before Lavinia, not to mention enough short stories and poems for a dozen collections of each, all her wonderful essays, children’s stories, etc., etc..  So something tells me that she didn’t hand the manuscript of Lavinia to a beta reader and say, “Gee, I wrote this book, but I really can’t tell if it’s any good, and if it isn’t, I have no idea how I would make it better.”  (Statements familiar to anyone who peruses writer’s forums.)  I also sincerely doubt that the chosen reader returned the manuscript covered in notes and corrections, or that an exchange lasting months or even years ensued until there was mutual agreement that the book was ready for submission.

Instead, I imagine that when Le Guin finished doing everything she normally does on her own when writing a book, at least ninety-five percent of what she handed to that first reader is the same as what’s in the published novel.  And if there were changes, it’s likely they were things that she herself chose to do in response to the feedback she received.

Why would I be willing to bet on this?  Because Le Guin has been practicing this craft–and needless to say, doing it extremely well–for long enough that she knows how to get the job done without requiring someone else to guide her through it.  That doesn’t means it’s always easy; it means she has the tools to deal with the challenges that arise.  As she mentions in answer to one of the FAQ’s on her website, the number of revisions she does after the initial draft can vary quite a bit–some books are more difficult to write than others.  (And when she refers to the ‘fiddling and polishing’ of revising as ‘gravy’, that’s exactly what I was talking about when I called it my ‘latest addiction’; once you’re comfortable with the process, it becomes very enjoyable.)

Sometimes the muse offers up a jumble of ideas, images and characters, and we have to play with them for quite a while to figure out how the pieces fit together.  At other times we get lucky and the muse delivers a complete package with all the pieces in place.  When the latter happens, I always think of the line in Michael Franks’ song for Antonio Carlos Jobim, “Like Water, Like Wind”, in which he says “You described just how the Muse surrendered to you ‘Wave’ in one piece, no problema.”  (And I can attest that when that happens it feels like receiving a wonderful gift.)

But either way, whether it takes many drafts or a few, coming up with a solid finished product is something a writer like Le Guin has learned to figure out for herself; it’s a skill she’s acquired with experience.  But it’s not as if anyone suddenly wakes up when they’re seventy and says, “Oh, now I get it!  Now I know how to do this.”  It’s no different from acquiring any other skill.  Your best effort at a completed, polished manuscript will almost surely be better at thirty-five than it was at twenty-five, better at forty-five than it was at thirty-five, and better at fifty-five than it was at forty-five, etc..  (Hopefully continuing into a ripe old age!)

(Naturally this is assuming that a writer continues to grow–continues to push themselves to explore the craft of writing and to see what they can accomplish.  But I don’t think anyone who writes because they’re passionate about writing–and who writes what they really want to write–is inclined to get sloppy and rest on their laurels; that’s the province of those who write for the love of money more than for the love of words.)

Rather than advising young writers to ‘murder’ anything, a helpful way to describe the problem they face is to say that they’re awfully proud to have dug up their very own lumpy, muddy rock with a gem inside of it, but they’re afraid to start cutting it.  Or they simply don’t know how to start cutting it.  So they have to push past that and make the effort to learn what it takes, or they’ll never uncover their gemstone.  But it shouldn’t be a matter of cutting out anything they’re truly proud of; on the contrary, it’s a matter of paring away the extraneous pieces they won’t miss at all when they’ve revealed the brightest facets of that gem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *