Deb: Getting the Distance

Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer.  But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.  ~Colette
I love revising. Really. But it’s hard, and harder still to teach. If you don’t believe me, plant yourself among inspired third graders with their freshly penned stories and try to get them to change anything.
You give a nice concise pep talk, including show and tell from your own work. Revision is important! Revision is hard! But you can do it! A child raises her hand. “What if I don’t want to change anything?”
Confident in the power of metaphor, you reach for a few to counter the resistance. It’s like putting on 3-D glasses – when you revise, your story looks different. It’s like your room – it gets a little messy sometimes. But it’s important. You can do it. The same child raises her hand. “What if I like it just the way it is?”
Within us all is a vestigial third grader, happy with our efforts, not so keen on changing anything of substance. Like the third grader, we’re already attached to the structure, the characters, the way the narrative unfolds. Besides, big changes mean big work.
We know we have to go the distance with our projects. We also have to get distance from them. We have to set love and admiration aside (that stunning metaphor! that clever character!) so we can spot flaws and ease them out of our work. We have to silence our inner third graders and take a pragmatic stance. We have to be our own kind and reasonable readers, appreciating what’s done well while questioning everything that’s not.
We approach other books pragmatically, with both kindness and reason. We note what other writers do well, from the sentence level to the whole structure. We note what could have been done better. As writer-readers, we train ourselves to zoom in and out of the prose. But approaching our own work with this stance is tougher that it seems. We want so very much for our writing to be beautiful and whole and perfect.
It’s critical to slow down. When you revise, you must be your own book doctor. First the diagnosis, then the treatment. Start by letting your project cool. When you pick it up to begin revision, find a way to see it in a different physical format. Changing the font and spacing helps. Even better – make it look like a book.
One of the best uses I’ve found for my Kindle is uploading work for a revision read. Not only do I get to see it in a different format, but I also can’t change it as I go. This prevents me from jumping right into treatment, which promotes a narrow view as I zoom in on a particular area and apply my fix. Instead, I’m forced to use the e-reader’s highlighting tool to mark places that need my attention, and to make separate notes about what’s not working, as well as noting the places I want to expand and contract. It’s more cumbersome than fix and go, fix and go – the Jiffy Lube revision. But that’s the point.
Third graders are great fun. But they’re still equipping themselves for life. Getting the distance for tough, meaningful revision is a skill we must make ourselves grow into. Pragmatic, kind, reasonable – that’s the reader you want to be when you revise. And there’s plenty of good in that approach, even beyond the page. “I think back to your class a lot,” a grown-up student recently wrote me. “I feel like I learned some life skills along with editing skills–the ‘pragmatic stance’ that is so enabling; imagining a kind and reasonable reader–what wonderful stuff!”
Try This: Resist the urge to be efficient. When you’re done with a draft, put it away and work on something else for a few weeks or even a few months. When you pick it up again, change the format – play with the font and the spacing, or convert to an ebook. As a kind and reasonable reader, diagnose before you treat. In a separate document – a reading journal – note what works and what doesn’t. Then read over all your notes, assume a pragmatic stance, and start your revision.
Check This Out: Your left brain is a censor, but you need its analytic prowess when it comes to revision. How to juggle the creative and the analytic? The classic text is Henriette Anne Klauser’s Writing on Both Sides of the Brain. 

3 thoughts on “Deb: Getting the Distance”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Great tips and tricks, Deb! (I've revised on a Kindle by accident — happened to be traveling — and never thought about the advantages. You're right!)

    I loved the 3rd grader examples and I wonder, developmentally and pedagogically, at what point a child can really revise effectively. Your planting of metaphors (messy room etc) is at least a good start! As an adult, it's been powerful to see historic manuscript pages in which you actually see the notes and changes made by a famous author. So helpful to be forced to reckon again and again with the notion that texts that seem inevitable or written in stone were at one point in flux, with so many pathways open.

  2. Interesting post! I find it hard to connect with my third-grader. Instead, my left brain wants to point out all the bad stuff and doesn't see the good stuff. What's worked for me is setting it aside until I can look at it with fresh eyes, and finding good critique partners who will point out both good and bad.

  3. Amy O'Neill Houck

    Hi Deb–thanks so much for this post. For some reason I had never thought of revising on Kindle… I write in Scrivener, and just realized I can export in .mobi format. I love the idea, since I can not only read the piece on the kindle, but also annotate it as you suggest. A great idea. Trying it this morning!

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