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Fear and Loathing and Revision

Back when I was still in publishing, I received a manuscript that was hundreds of pages longer than it needed to be. Over two years and four edits it shrank to what the author later described as his “haiku book.” It was also named a New York Times Notable Book that year, something that he and I hadn’t quite envisioned when assessing that first draft. Each time I sent him my edits, I imagined him peeling back the lip of the envelope, examining the pages, and cursing me emphatically and repeatedly. I’m sure that’s not what happened. But revision is a beast, and I wouldn’t have blamed him if it had.


What the best writers know, and what you’ll hear me say more than once in this space, is that writing is all about rhythm. It’s there in the composition of sentences and paragraphs. And it’s there in the act of writing. It’s important to recognize your own rhythms as a writer and adhere to them. As I described in my earlier post, you can’t write every hour of every day. Instead, there are daily and annual periods of ferocious productivity, and then the necessary fallow times, where you pick through fragments of sentences, turn over old ideas, rest, and wait. Sometimes these abeyant periods last just a few hours or overnight because that’s all the time you have. But if you have a few weeks or months, that’s even better.

Fresh Eyes

The time away from your work provides you with new perspective. And upon your return, you can get methodical. The first flush of excitement is gone. The work is alien and ill fitting. Discarding here and adding there, you piece together what remains. Words may be magical, but this is where the actual magic happens. All is transparent, every flaw, every trick, fishing wire, and magnet. Through workmanlike, messy labor, you wrest some version of your original idea (in the end hopefully a better version of what currently exists) from the words before you on the page. And when it’s complete, it can all appear seamless.

In On Writing, Stephen King advocates writing with the door closed when tackling a first draft and open during the revision process. By that he means that it’s not simply important that you alone see the work with fresh eyes. Others (e.g., your friendly neighborhood editor) can offer key insight in sorting through what to keep, move, or toss as well. We write to express ideas. Others help us better understand how effective we are at doing so.

Judge the Work Alone

The key to getting through the revision process is two-fold. First, evaluate the work, not yourself. There will be things that are so bad that you can’t believe you’ve written them. And there will be things that are so good that you also can’t believe you’ve written them. Discard the former and parse carefully through the latter. Do they further an idea or somehow hinder it? Are they the cornerstone of your argument or the beautiful remnants of a lapsed theme? Though you are loathe to do so, as the adage says, do not be afraid to murder your darlings in the service of the greater good.

Secondly, respect the rhythm of the writing process. Yes, I return to that. Part of the aggravation and frustration of revising lies in the fact that rather than generating ideas and putting them down on paper, they must now fit together, make sense, and build towards something. And that’s hard work. But after a period away, it takes a while to inhabit a piece again, to feel at ease and know its sharp corners and unfinished rooms. You have to map out the floor plan again. Depending on the length and scope of your work, that process can take several weeks of immersion. Again, that previous vacation of sorts, even if it’s one in which you’re working on something else, is necessary. It’s how you recognize what’s effective and what isn’t. And because you can’t just walk straight into the revision process after some time away, it’s important to reiterate the value of judging the work alone and not yourself for failing to revise or even to figure out what needs to be altered faster. Getting caught up in that fight is what can slow you down.


A friend of mine who is an artist talks about the monumental effort to capture the fleeting enchantment of creative inspiration. Revision, she suggests, is an aspect of the creative process peculiar to the literary arts. If this is indeed the case, aren’t we writers and editors lucky to have another go ‘round, a second-, third-, or perhaps even fourth chance to make it right.

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