Deb Vanasse | Dirty Secrets of Revision and Editing


I’ve warned you before—I’m obsessed with gardening. Especially this year, when after thirty-six years in Alaska, I moved to the Oregon Coast, where people informed me that everything would grow bigger and faster than I ever expected.

It does.

For the connections with writing, I blame Natalie Goldberg, whose wisdom I shared most recently when talking with adolescents in a treatment facility about the value of journaling. You take the trash life deposits, Goldberg says, and by piling it up and waiting while it heats up and turning it now and then, you get this rich, fertile material from which stories grow.

The analogy extends, as I was thinking this morning, weeding when I should have been writing this post. I’ve just returned from being away eleven days, and I’m getting ready to travel again, so I ran out—there’s a storm rolling in—to harvest strawberries, peas, tomatoes, and squash before I leave. But of course I had to walk right by the one big bed of ornamentals that I didn’t get around to weeding this weekend. So I dropped off my harvest basket and grabbed my tools—garden gloves, weed bucket, kneeling pad, screwdriver—and began attacking the offenders.

Who knew a screwdriver was so useful for twisting up weeds by the roots? A friend taught me that little trick. Who knew that sheep sorrel—tasty and nutritious in moderation—would propagate itself so aggressively via its rhizomes?

It’s a messy process, but I love getting into the dirt. Magic happens there, and if you only observe a garden from afar, you forget how it happens, via microbes and bugs and worms. If you don’t get into the dirt, you can’t assess the health of your plants. You’ll find plants that need to be moved. You’ll find plants that need to be pruned. You’ll find plants that just aren’t going to make it—they’re best off in the compost bin.

For a long, long time, I gardened on my own. How hard could it be? Seed, soil, sun, water, and it all happens on its own, right?

Within months of my move to Oregon, faced with an acre of sand—our house is atop a dune, a mile from the Pacific—I signed up for Master Gardener training. It’s there I discovered that Goldberg left off her analogy too soon. Compost is only the beginning. To get that beautiful, bountiful garden, you have to fend off pests and weeds. You have to prune. You have to move things around. You might possibly stumble upon success on your own, but it’s a whole lot easier if you know what you’re doing—and if you have experts to guide you.

There are writers who express amazement when I tell them how much I enjoy revising and editing my work. Like planting, drafting is fun—it’s where the magic is most apparent. But it’s in the messy parts, the revision, where a garden really finds its shape. You get in close and assess the health of your work. You move things around and—voila—beauty! You prune back so the right parts can grow, and you pluck out the parts that, though endearing, have gotten a bit out of hand.The right tools, plus some expert guidance, make all the difference.

In order to share my dirty little secrets of revision and editing, I’m teaching a month-long 49 Writers online workshop, Revise & Edit, beginning October 25. Writers looking to expand their publishing opportunities by notching up the quality of their writing can join us from home, wherever they are, as long as they have an internet connection.

As a text, we’ll use Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, purchased separately, as a guide for revising for intention, character, structure, foreshadowing, theme, and tone. We’ll also practice editing for language, repetition, redundancy, clarity, authenticity, and continuity. I’m even tossing in an individual manuscript consultation, normally $50 per hour, as part of the course fee.

Yes, it will get messy, but all toward a good end. For details and to register, visit

Deb Vanasse has lost count of how many 49 Writers workshop she’s taught. She’s hoping a few of you are up for another. Because she still hasn’t figured out exactly what kind of writer she wants to be when she grows up, she’s written seventeen books in a variety of genres. Among her most recent are Write Your Best Book, the novel Cold Spell, and Wealth Woman, a biography that features alternative perspectives on history.

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