Twelve Posts on Writing, Day Six: Don’t be afraid to break it

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A friend called a while back, wanting feedback on a story she’d written for a contest in our local newspaper. I listened as she read, and jotted down notes of what I liked and also what I thought she could improve.

She liked hearing me tell her which lines I thought were good, which bits of dialogue made me smile.

She didn’t like hearing me suggest she make changes. Changes like using less adjectives, getting rid of passive voice, cutting that one cliche.

I wasn’t harsh in my critique, and I made it clear from the start that I enjoyed the story and thought it would stand a chance against the other stories in the contest. But I could hear in her voice that my comments had crushed her motivation to enter the piece at all.

I asked her how many times she’d revised the story. She hadn’t. This was her first draft. When I asked her if she’d consider revising it and letting me hear it again, she gave me a half-hearted “maybe”.

I felt like crap. What kind of friend was I, crushing her hope? Ugh. But I also knew it did her no good to just say, “Wow, that’s a great story! You’re awesome.”

There are a lot of dynamics at work in this situation, many of which I could blog about. But the one thing I keep returning to is this:

We’re afraid of breaking what we’ve created.

We get a story idea. We pound it out. We step back and congratulate ourselves — as well we should. Any effort of creation is hard work and, like our children, our creations bear some essence of ourselves.

But there’s a crucial next step: returning to the work and improving it. I’m not talking just correcting typos, but getting into the work and bending it, shaping it, re-creating it into a better thing.

There are no perfect first drafts. (Well, not for me, at least. If you write perfect rough drafts, please please please tell me your secrets.)

A story is always made better with revising. But we have to lose that fear that by changing it, we’re going to break it.

I could list example after example of great writers (Joyce, Nabokov, etc.) who slaved over their work, sweating over whether to put a comma in this sentence, or spending an entire day agonizing over a single word. They understood that there is always more to be worked from the text.

Revising makes me think of the sculptor, coaxing an image from the clay, smoothing away the rough spots. Even crumpling the piece and starting over, sacrificing what was in order for what might be.

I heard Kevin McIlvoy speak once on revising. He said he’d finally published one of his books when he’d finished the 48th draft. Then, after it was published, he continued to revise it.

48 drafts!! I almost fell off my chair when he said that.

I’m not sure I’ll ever work a story through 48 drafts, and I’m not suggesting everyone must be as diligent as him when revising. But he was dedicated to making that story the very best it could be. He understood that even publication doesn’t make a piece finished; there is always more work that can be done.

Isn’t this true for all of us, for all of our writing? Shouldn’t we be willing to risk breaking a piece in order to work it closer to that perfect vision we have of it in our minds?

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Are you afraid of revising?

(Haha, I had to come back in here and edit…)


3 thoughts on “Twelve Posts on Writing, Day Six: Don’t be afraid to break it

    hotmustard said:
    December 20, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    I think this is extremely valuable advice for writers. One of my very first editors told me “If someone reads your work and hands it back without at least one suggestion for how to improve it, they don’t care about you.” Every piece of work can be improved — that’s how professional editors pay their mortgage. Being passionate about your writing is good; being emotionally attached to it, not so much.

    Great blog, keep it up!

    annastan said:
    December 20, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    48 drafts! Wowza. Then again, I have one manuscript that I’ve revised so many times, it very well might be up in the 40s. Obviously I agree with you- revision is key! Some things come out good in a first draft, but they have the potential to be great with revision.

    S. C. Green said:
    December 20, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Revising… If you have the address of any successful single-draft authors, keep them hidden. I know a mob of writers that would love to lynch them.
    Learning to take criticism on your work was probably the hardest lesson I had. I still struggle with it, but not to the extent I used to.

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