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Thirteen Ways of Looking at Revision: notes for a reluctant student

posted: 2.22.13 by archived

Start with this video about how Jerry Seinfeld wrote (and is still writing) his Pop-Tart joke. (You are old enough to remember Jerry Seinfeld, right?)

If you only had one chance to get it right, if your words were squeezed out in quick-hardening concrete, wouldn’t it take you forever to dare to start?

In his Paris Review interview, E. L. Doctorow said that “[Writing is] like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” So you’ve driven across the country and ended up as planned in the Pacific Ocean. Would you require a reader to trace your own circuitous route, blind to all those serendipitous roadside attractions you too had missed?

In the rush of writing (whether immersed in creative flow or the panic of impending deadline), you may not have stopped to consider carefully the words you set down. A more disciplined look may turn up a host of becalming linking verbs, redundant or smugly evaluative adjectives, hazy nouns: “There were some tiny, little, interesting things.” But you can fix that!

Consider how anyone becomes an expert. Think about Tom Brady (fill in your own favorite quarterback) and imagine those thousands of hours spent watching film, lifting weights, throwing the same old football down the field, over and over again. True, it’s a different situation on game day, with 10 seconds left on the clock, and there will be no opportunity to revise that pass that sailed over a receiver’s outstretched hands. But if Tom could do it over, don’t you think he would seize that chance?

What I hope for you: is that writing is sometimes more than the drudging chore of spooling out what you already know, that instead you feel the piercing thrill of discovering something new as you write. But when that sparkling realization fills the entire windshield of your consciousness,  perhaps what you have already written will seem incomplete and puny in contrast?

When you speak, you cannot call back your fumbled sentences, splice out your repetitions, correct your malapropisms (or should I say not-quite-right words?). When you write, you have the luxury of cut, copy, and paste, the infinite permutations of the keyboard. Could you just for a minute try to see this as the advantage of writing to speaking?

I know, I resist outlining too. But if you don’t outline ahead of time, if you aren’t using a plan to guide the lines you pencil on wood and then irrevocably cut, how do you know the pieces will fit together?

I don’t mean to make it all about me, but just what is my role here? Is there a point to my reading your works in progress, or shall I just slap a grade on a final draft, which is (as you tell me) exactly what you wanted to say? Will my justifications on one writing project help you to better tackle the next one?

A hypothesis: The masterpieces of Western painting  were painted in oil rather than watercolors because oil paint permits revision. In sculpture, consider the revision possibilities of bronze, marble, clay, Play dough. Is there a contradiction here?

A reader will try to hear the sound of your voice in his head as he reads your words. Can you hear your own voice through  your words on the page? Try to listen to the rhythms of your sentences.

Do you bring friends along on your shopping expeditions to the mall? Do you listen when they tell you a color washes out your complexion, or a skirt is an unflattering shape, or the cut of that pair of pants is outdated? When making selections, it is helpful to learn what others see.

When you leave this classroom to enter to Real World, you will probably be writing in your workplace: ad campaigns, technical instructions, building proposals, law documents. You will be responsible to your boss, to clients, to colleagues, to whoever will need the information you are charged to convey. Will you be able to respond to the feedback they give you, or will you insist that you have communicated exactly what you intended?

Categories: Holly Pappas
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