Monday, February 23, 2009

Mentor Monday: Repeat as Necessary

I like playing solitaire on the computer. Partly this is because I seldom misplace my computer, while finding a complete deck of cards in my house can be a challenge. But the best thing about games on the computer is the “repeat game” option. In real solitaire you can’t re-deal the exact game you just lost, so you can’t go back and figure out whether a different choice at some point in the game might have yielded better results. The computer allows me to play the same game over and over until I either win or determine that this particular combination of cards just isn’t going to work. I can also use the “undo” option to back up through the game, choose a different option at a particular point, and explore the result.

Computer solitaire provides an instructive model for our writing. We sometimes become so caught up in our created work that we feel as though, like real life, it cannot be changed. But our work (even if we are writing non-fiction) is in fact revisable, and nearly always can be improved by rewriting. We can “repeat last game” over and over, trying different approaches, different transitions, different connections until we find the strongest, most vivid language and most effective presentation possible. As with card games, the computer makes re-writing simpler, although generations of writers managed with pen and ink and scissors and paste.

Perhaps recalling painful days of junior high school, some writers profess to hate the revision process. Most professional writers, however, love it. The initial anguish of trying to capture thoughts and corral characters is over. The essential thread of the story is set. Revision (literally “seeing again”) is a time for weighing words and polishing phrases. The writer can focus on pacing and rhythm, balance and structure, voice and theme. Sometimes a thought mentioned in passing in the first draft catches our attention, demanding development. Sometimes a line, lovingly embellished in the heat of creation, appears cloying or out of place. Whole scenes, arguments, even whole characters may turn out to be superfluous, while in other places you may discover a backstory that needs revealing.

Two factors are essential for effective re-writing: time and feedback. Here the analogy with computer solitaire breaks down.

The replay option in the game only works if you use it immediately. Re-writing, in contrast, demands a time-lapse. It is almost impossible to do more than surface editing on a piece you’ve just completed. For a short piece, at least ignore it overnight. For longer works, even if you revise as you go (revise the last chapter before starting on the next), plan to let the first completed draft age for a while before re-reading it.

A time lapse will also enable you to involve the second factor, feedback. Have a critique group, a writing buddy or at least a reasonably objective spouse read your piece and tell you, honestly, what works and what doesn’t.

Real writers are re-writers.
Even God did a second draft!


Anonymous said...

I hate -- absolutely and completely -- first drafts. It takes great pain to get words on the paper.

I LOVE revising -- absolutely and completely -- for the very reasons you state in this post. It's so much fun rearranging, polishing, rewriting, seeing things in a new way.

Fabulous post, Sally!

Anonymous said...

I agree, Sally. I feel like I'm really a writer when I'm revising.