Revision is Remodeling (Not Dusting the Furniture)
February 2, 2023 § 25 Comments
HOW TO AVOID TWO COLOSSAL MISSTEPS IN REVISING MEMOIR
By Dinty W. Moore
“Writing is revision,” Tracy Kidder famously suggested, and if the number of times I rewrote this blog post is any indication, he is entirely right.
But being a mentor and writing coach for countless memoirists and essayists over the years has shown me that two colossal missteps keep many of us from realizing the massive benefits that re-visioning – seeing the work through fresh eyes even after completing a first or second draft – can provide.
The first misstep is entirely understandable, because it follows age-old advice about starting any worthwhile task “at the beginning.” We sit down for a new draft and the first thing we do is to begin polishing the first sentence. “Got to make this one better,” we murmur to ourselves. “The first line has to be good.”
Making any sentence more vivid, more compelling is a positive thing, but, yes, this approach can be a waste of time.
To make serious use of the revision process, writers need to let go of the natural urge to preserve the sentences we have already written. We need to be entirely open to the possibility that large chunks of our current draft are just trial runs. Our first sentence, our first paragraph, our first page – all of these elements are just auditioning for the role. They haven’t earned it yet.
They may need to be replaced, rearranged, or perhaps your story will be stronger simply by taking them out and letting the remainder stand by itself.
One way to think about the difference between minor revision and serious revision is to imagine that you are remodeling your family living room. Simply proofreading your second or third draft and fixing a few awkward sentences is like remodeling a room by dusting the end tables and rearranging the pillows on the sofa. Not much of a change. A minor improvement at best.
The true act of revision comes when a writer is willing to move each and every piece of furniture out onto the front lawn, roll up the area rugs, take the pictures down, unscrew the wall sconces. Then, on a case-by-case basis, the writer can decide which elements returns to the room, and where they will be situated. Sometimes the old sofa needs to be left out on the curb for recycling, because it just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe some new furniture is purchased (a new scene is written). Perhaps the walls are painted a new color (voice or point-of-view shifts.)
In some cases, maybe all the furniture is returned to the room, but not to the same location. Put those tables over there, where they are more useful. Arrange the chairs so they face the window and its excellent view of the weeping willow branches. What’s important is that nothing goes back inside the metaphorical living room until and unless the writer makes the conscious choice that it belongs. And where it belongs.
This may seem like hard work, and indeed it is, but well worth the effort. Writing is an act of detection, an attempt to determine what the writer thinks and feels, so it only makes sense that the author’s idea of what a memoir or essay should say and do will transform over time.
Be ruthless with your early, auditioning pages. Show no mercy.
And the second colossal misstep? Dreading the revision process. “My work is so bad I can’t stand to look at it,” we grumble. Or maybe, “Cripes, there is so much to fix, what is wrong with me?”
It’s really, however, just a matter of how you think about it.
Personally, I love revision. “Oh my goodness,” I tell myself. “What a lucky break. I get to fix this mess. I get to fiddle around in here and save the good parts, cut the weak parts, connect the parts that need to be connected, before anyone sees what a ham-handed early draft I wrote. Thank goodness!”
Life doesn’t give us enough do-overs, but writing always does. If we grant ourselves the space.
I’ll be talking more about all things revision next week as part of Jane Friedman’s amazing webinar series. The webinar – The Art of Revising Memoir – is $25, live on Wednesday, Feb. 8th, at 1 pm Eastern. (But you can register and download a recording if that time is not free.)
I’d love to see you there. We’ll discuss the best ways to approach revision, the numerous, overlapping stages of improving your work, and what questions to ask as you journey happily through an early draft in search of the better, final version.
Dinty W. Moore is founder and editor of Brevity magazine. He is author of the writing guide Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and teaches master classes and workshops across the United States as well as in Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Canada, Italy, and Mexico.
Even though I’ve read this same advice in various forms over the years, I still needed this reminder for something I’m working on right now!
I find my forays into ” panster” mode generate surprising and unexpected gems, but also a large amount of material that ends up being cut. I “waste” much less material as a “plotter,” but also miss out on those gems.
We all need reminders. Thanks Stacey!
I love the visual of moving the furniture and fixtures. I have a new way of looking at how I do this in Scrivener by moving chunks of words over to the notes panel. Sometimes they find another place in the room, but often, they remain out on the curb waiting for another opportunity.
Don’t worry. The frat boys will take your old sofa and plunk it on their front porch.
Good to know 😉
Terrific metaphor! Both visual and tangible. I look forward to the webinar, too.
“Oh my goodness,” I tell myself. “What a lucky break. I get to fix this mess.” LOL. Love this!
I, too, LOVE revision, a self-authorized, encouraged form of obsession. Thanks for the remodeling metaphor. As you introduced it, I immediately thought of walls I need to knock DOWN even before I start painting. I’m in the weeds with a second memoir and will sign up for Wednesday’s event right now. Can’t wait.
Thanks, Paul. Sometimes you have to tear down the entire house, but that’s too discouraging to dwell on right now 🙂
This post arrives at a propitious time for me. Thank you, Dinty, especially for this: “Life doesn’t give us enough do-overs, but writing always does. If we grant ourselves the space.” I’m trying to write a short story and, man alive, have I been rearranging the furniture — with half of it kicked to the curb. Phew. Hard work but satisfying, even with more rearranging to do.
The end makes it all worth it.
I first found the concept of re-visioning many years ago. Thank you, Dinty, for your clear and useful expansion of that process. Time to empty the room…
Good luck Jan.
The neighbors will probably think I’m screaming at my poor sainted husband when they hear “Don’t you dare bring that nasty old sofa back in this house!”
I love this metaphor!
I have not yet learned to love revision so I’m in! Ready to update my perspective. I enjoy doing crossword puzzles, how words emerge eventually to fit just right..this may become my “beyond furniture dusting” metaphor to keep the faith and patience while editing.
Loving how words work and loving to play with them is what makes a writer.
What an amazing gift at the time I need the rope for how to proceed…
Thank you, thank you 🙏
I’m only halfway through my first draft and now I feel as if you’ve just added another year to the process! 🙂
“I rewrite a lot, over and over again, so that it looks like I never did. I try to make it look like I never touched it, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of sweat.”
~ Toni Morrison
Thank you, Dinty. I never liked dusting furniture, anyway. Revision is more rewarding.
Will try to make this, Dinty. You make a great point about attitude–revision attitude. If seen as annoying, that’s one thing; but to see it as an opportunity to right the ship, well, that’s definitely more inspiring. So often the lead/the hook is actually buried somewhere in a first or second draft, and until that is rectified, nothing else is quite right. So it seems. Thanks for the blog post. Can never have too many quality reminders! Namaste.
I love the remodeling analogy! I’ll remember that.