Writer in Residence · 07/25/2012

Editing, Teaching, and Revision

A linked list of all posts from Revision Month can be found here.

We go through changes, as people, as writers. We go through MFA programs. We go through workshops. We go through drafts and drafts. We become editors. We become teachers. We go to conferences. We go to colonies. We get rejected. We get published. We find new ways of looking at ourselves and our writing.

We go through revision. And I am curious as to how the way we write and revise changes as who we are and what we do changes.

Many of us are editors or teachers, and spend a lot of time looking at other writers’ work in its imperfect stages. Sometimes we are editors of other writers’ work before we are good editors of our own. Sometimes we are better editors of others than of ourselves.

I started “editing” as a graduate student at Emerson College, working on the literary journal Redivider. Although this wasn’t so much editing as it was, at first, reading many many stories, and cover letters, and either rejecting the stories or passing them on to be discussed at an editorial meeting where publication was decided by vote. Almost all of the stories I read were not stories I was able to fall in love with. This was instructive in several ways: 1. I saw how many many stories were out there. 2. I started to learn what didn’t work (for me). 3. I learned a lot about the submission process, including how to write a non-intrusive cover letter and how much of the process was subjective and/or luck. 4. I realized no one is going to stick it out to get to the good parts, that one small misstep can be enough to stop a reader, and that what matters most to getting a good read is authority — that hard to describe or teach feeling that you are in good hands, hands that will deliver you to someplace you want to go, even if you didn’t know you wanted to go there until you’re there. And 5. Honestly, that connections matter. (I don’t mean this in a sleazy way, just in the way that you trust your friends on where to go for dinner more than you trust a stranger. Luckily, you get to eat everywhere and tell for yourself, but there’s a different expectation that goes into eating at a place whose recommendation you trust.)

Some of this isn’t about revision. But most of it is. I had a folder on my computer full of stories I realized weren’t very good. Some of them I revised, trying to make them stories I would pick out of the slush. Many of them took years to get to that level. One of my favorite stories to read at events is a story I started in 2006, just before I went to Emerson, the latest version of which is from this year. It’s been published, but it’s different from the published version now. Because I will never stop revising if I’m given the chance to make something better and I have even an inkling of how to do so.

Inklings often come with time and experience.

Now, for the Good Men Project, I do a lot more marking up of stories and asking authors to push them further. I never suggest something I wouldn’t suggest to myself. And yet I try never to suggest something that would make the story mine and not the author’s. The key is bringing what you have to a table already set with the author’s story and tools. More metaphors.

Hopefully this editing experience helps me see all stories, my own included, on their own potential and intentions. Hopefully I can wear a separate hat, as Daniel Torday talks about below, this one as (only) editor. A hat we need for our own writing, the kind of distance which this month has often discussed achieving.

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On Editing and Wearing Hats, by Daniel Torday

When I find myself in a moment of really having to express to students in workshop what the real business of revision entails, more often than I’d like I find myself talking about hats. Specifically about the hats I have worn myself when it comes to tackling stories: the writer hat, and the editor hat. And in revision I find the most important thing is simply to keep those two jobs distinct. As a writer, I allow myself all the leeway I can: multiple parentheticals? Long sentences strung together by ands? Piles of adjectives? My writer-self should happily have a glut of these things if he wants. But as an editor, no chance I’d let any such mishigas go. So what I’ve devised for myself is a separation of powers. Each writer must find his own way of doing this, but for me it’s a direct rule: writing on-screen, I am a writer. When a story is printed out on paper, and I have pen in hand, I’m an editor.

And so I go back and forth. On-screen: and and (and). On paper: cut all three. This can make for countless drafts that don’t look hugely different. And it doesn’t mean not to break rules. If I suddenly find myself writing new paragraphs with a pen, I know I’m doing so because I feel that sense of urgency, that sense of necessity you feel down in your bones, that can only come when breaking rules. And that is a sense that a reader can feel in his bones, too.

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Change the medium. Change your hat.

I also teach, which can be its own hat sometimes and sometimes can be a very similar hat to editor. Teaching, having to explain my opinions in concrete terms, having to give advice, has been invaluable to my writing. Once, at Emerson, I did a few counseling sessions as part of our insurance, because they were free. I wasn’t ready to talk about some of my deeper issues, though, so what I talked about was writing. Discussing my ideas with someone who only tried to turn them back on me, someone who knew only what I told her, helped me to do some of my best writing at Emerson. Teaching has had a similar effect, while also being satisfying on the level of helping other writers. Having to articulate where I stand on certain writerly issues, and how to fix certain story lacks, and why one thing works better than another (generally), has helped me to know where I stand and what to fix and why something works or doesn’t work. Knowledge applied to my own prose, I hope.

This month has also been helpful, for the same reason. So thank you, if you are reading this, and thank you to Steve Himmer. Thank you for letting me blabber on here between the insightful thoughts of other writers.

Here is Carissa Halston with her thoughts on revision and how reading more and editing have changed her revision process. As always, leave your thoughts in the comments. Thanks.

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Carissa Halston on Revision

Nuts and Bolts

It’s hard to talk about revision without addressing the initial draft. Some writers are get-the-words-on-the-page first drafters (think Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts”), whereas I’m a very early reviser. I’ll agonize over a word or a sentence before I can move on. It’s my way of avoiding the extreme sides of the spectrum, getting rid of mundane or overly flashy imagery and instead forging something that’s more honest in its depiction of whatever I’m trying to describe. Since that actually is as hard as it sounds, I frequently get stuck and when that happens, I leave a space for myself. That ________ reminds me that I need something and, more importantly, it allows me to push past blocks during a stage when I shouldn’t yet be actively editing.

When I get to successive drafts, though still early on, I read with the intention of finding gaps, then mend sections by writing what I refer to as bridges. Bridges are passages that link scenes together, like transition terms in analytical writing, only longer and, with hope, more entertaining. Then I do an overall sweep to find the strongest and weakest parts of a story and assess the ways I can make those weak parts stronger, not necessarily to compete with the high points, rather to ramp toward them.

In later stages of editing, I look at pacing/structure. This is a difficult task because it requires a wide lens, so to speak. On first pass, I’ll recognize that entire passages will need to be shifted. That usually means there are sentences that need rearranging or paragraphs that need to be reordered — syntax issues on a micro and macro level. So I’ll target those areas by making the text red and blend them back in with the rest of the text after they’ve been fixed.

Changes in Revision Practice

When I was younger, I was more influenced by theatre and you could see it in the physical layout of my work. I would edit with an eye for a visual collective breath, so to speak, usually by way of a line break that would set off a single sentence paragraph, which I liked because I felt they gave the impression of the end of a monologue. Now that I’m older (and have read more), I’m more influenced by prose, so I’m editing to emphasize lyricism or metaphor instead of visual cohesion (though, really, both choices are about voice).

My revision process has also changed since I’ve edited other writers’ work. Reading someone else’s in-progress writing makes it easy to spot the technical weaknesses, but also to troubleshoot issues that are harder to articulate, things like pacing and consistency of voice. Also, there’s the question of invention — different from fabrication in that it has to do with the confidence that a writer has when he or she is doing something new and doing it well — when I see a fellow writer stepping up to the innovative plate, as it were, it makes me want to improve my own work. To branch out and try something I haven’t before. But even innovation benefits from revision. Improvement is usually a hybrid of intuition, desire to see a project through to its logical conclusion (even if that logic is one invented for the story), and a willingness to carefully revise.

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posted by Matt Salesses