A few years back, I taught woodworking to teenage boys. They’d come into my shop with big ideas about the table or the bookshelf they intended to make and they’d start cutting wood and hammering nails and glueing boards and as they went I’d see a growing sense of dissatisfaction in their faces. That crestfallen look was there because the final work wasn’t as pristine as the glimmering idea they’d walked in the door with. So I’d help them. We’d backtrack and talk about drawing workable plans. I’d introduce them to important tools like the tape-measure because “No. You can’t just guess.” I’d show them the importance of structural support and strong, solid joints. Later, rather than sooner, most boys would end up with a functional version of their original vision. But in the end, a table (or a bookshelf) is a lot more work than a teenage boy envisions.
Without any doubt, though, there was always one part of the process that was the hardest to teach: Sanding. In woodworking, sanding is something that is almost impossible to do enough of. It’s also tedious. Trying to get a teenage boy to sit down and sand a board thoroughly is a trial. Heck, trying to sand thoroughly is hard even for me. It’s just not much fun. But a fine job of sanding will elevate an acceptable piece of work out of the swamp of the hobbyist and onto the higher ground of the artisan.
In writing, we’ve got another word for sanding; it’s called revision.
For the past month, I’ve been knee-deep in editorial work for The Molehill Vol. 2. I’ve read a lot of great essays, short stories, and poetry. I’ve also written a lot of notes and letters about what needs to be sanded down, refined, reinforced, and polished. Revising is a skill, and it’s one that anyone who writes needs to spend time learning, because revision is the abrasive force that rubs the burrs and imprecisions out of a piece of work so that its texture, grain, and natural beauty can shine.
The following are a few notes on things that I, as an editor, find myself repeatedly trying to sand away. I hope they’ll be useful to anyone who wants to look more critically at their own writing.
1. Writers’ Tics: Most writers have certain words, phrases, and sentence constructions that they unconsciously lean toward. Over the course of an entire work these “tics” can become repetitive to a reader, though the writer may not notice them at all. For instance, one of my own “tics” is that I often lean heavily on the use of a “series.” In other words, I tend toward constructions that list, delineate, or present multiple examples, arguments, or iterations that will support, reinforce, or underscore my point. Other people may just use the word “really” a lot, or “dappled,” or “blackness.” The important point here is that none of these things are wrong taken alone, but when they evolve into patterns, they become distracting. Learn to recognize your own “tics” and cull them.
2. First Sentences: This one usually applies to essays. Often the first sentence is clearly the writer trying to get himself into the work by telling himself what he’s writing about. This is fine if it helps you begin the process of writing, but don’t forget to go back and delete that sentence once you’ve finished.
Example: “Well, after last year’s topic, I thought it would be fun to go ahead and write something different. It occurred to me in early May that cicadas might taste good with ketchup.”
I’m not sure that sounds like a winning essay (or maybe it does) but it certainly doesn’t need that first sentence. It’s nothing more than a ramp the writer has built in order to propel him toward what he really wants to say. No problem. But once the essay is done, take down the ramp. We don’t need it anymore.
3. Adjectives and Adverbs: First let me say that I’m not quite as militant about these as Strunk and White are (if you haven’t read The Elements of Style, get thee to the Rabbit Room store and buy a copy without delay!). However, a writer needs to consider each and every one of them with suspicion. A sentence is usually not enhanced by the addition of a bunch of modifiers. Choose yours carefully. Above all, though, be sure that your descriptive words and phrases are not getting in the way of the meaning of your sentence. If in doubt, try removing all your adjectives and adverbs; strip your sentence down to its most basic subject and verb and see if it’s making sense. I sometimes see writers getting lost in their own labyrinthine constructions. And if the writer is getting lost, you can bet the reader is too.
4. Subtext: This is where revision becomes your best friend. When we write, we often end up saying exactly what’s going on, exactly what characters are thinking, exactly what characters mean. We explain the importance of events or symbols or metaphors. We do this because we, as writers, often need to remind ourselves what we mean while we are in the act of writing. But it’s of utmost importance that during revision we go back and cut out all of those reminders. If we’ve done our jobs properly, reminders won’t be necessary. The meanings will all be planted firmly in the subtext, between the lines. The reader will intuit what the writer has left out—and that’s a mark of good writing.
Simplified example: “Mary glared at Tom. She was angry at him but all she said was “Thank you.”
This example is greatly simplistic, but if the imagined scene leading up to this sentence is well written, all that is required of the sentence is: “Mary glared at Tom. ‘Thank you,’ she said.”
Or potentially even just “‘Thank you,’ she said.”
Good writing doesn’t tell the reader how a character feels. Good writing shows the reader how a character acts and reacts, and then the writing gets out of the way. Trust the reader to infer the subtext.
In addition to all these things, remember that editors are fallible–even me–especially me (as anyone who’s sent me an email about a typo knows). So if you’re working with someone to revise your work, be bold, be confident, stand up for what you’ve created, but don’t defend your work merely for the sake of pride. Think carefully about why you’ve made certain choices—you may be right, but there may be a better way. Think carefully about why an editor may disagree—he or she may be wrong, but may also be sensing an issue that needs to be addressed. Every minute you put into these considerations is a minute well-spent. It may be tedious—sanding usually is—but if you’ve taken the time to create something, it’s worth taking the time to love and refine it as well.