Full disclosure: this is a repeat of a comment I posted last year about multiple revisions and reductions, when we were on this same topic. I am re-posting now because there a lot of new people here so maybe it will be useful to some other folks. (plus, you know, why not get a little more mileage out of the thing?)


I wrote an essay for a journal years ago. Might have been about 2,000 words. It was

well received and I thought it was pretty good. Then it got more attention and another

journal called, wanting to publish it in their special back page feature position. It was an honor. It was also limited to 1,000 words. I had to cut my piece in half. I bled. It got tighter. My wife read it and thought it was much better. She couldn't even remember the parts I cut. Then I heard from the Utne Reader, who wanted to promote it with a brief version. They needed it to be 500 words max. I cut it in half again. I bled more. The story started to bleed. I think I passed the point of coherence and it turned into a synopsis. But they published that and I enjoyed the continued publicity. Then I heard from the Pearson Testing Service. They wanted to license it for an essay question on their standardized tests. I thought it was joke. I asked my daughter in law who is an educator. She said, on the contrary, it was an honor, go for it. So I asked how much they wanted. They said 300 words....and...I cut it again. So the synopsis became an excerpt. I learned a tremendous amount about how much fat can be cut and I learned how much of my own absolutely fabulous words were simply expendable, without losing the point. I also learned how it can go too far, lose the overall grace but still communicate the main points, enough for a student, somewhere, to react to it and bring forth their own ideas, and start the cycle over for themselves. Quite the set of lessons about writing and life.

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I think a lot of great stuff has been said already. My only tip (and by that I mean it’s what I do, but it might be useful to others) is during early drafts I try not to delete old alternative versions of things that I’m changing in each version. Or put a line through, so that it’s still visible, or sometimes put the old version in square brackets, so I can see it and reconsider the new and old alternatives on subsequent read throughs. Yes, sometimes it is disfigured beyond recognition; but generally something in that old version in brackets, or whatever, gives a hint of how to bring it back.

It reminds me of primary school. We were discouraged from erasers for writing, but to try and put a neat line through things. Who knew it would eventually make sense?!

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All i would add to George's great advice is this: To ask yourself "what is the purpose of my revision?" And to ask yourself that same question with each draft. When you've written a first draft, the purpose of your revision will (most likely) be to find out what your story actually is. Because you have allowed yourself the freedom to put words on paper, now is the time to look into all of what came up from your subconscious and your conscious minds and see what it is you are telling yourself! It's in there--you just have to find it. You might want to use some tools to parse out the story--a set of questions that will help you see what you have done. And then, once you see a bit more clearly, you revise to story. You keep "revising to story" until the story is there. Along the way, you will find that there may be just one way to tell this particular story. And so, you will need to revise, keeping what makes this story this story, and getting rid of what makes this story something other than what it is. Again, you may want a set of tools/questions to ask yourself in order to do this. I'd call this more of a style revision, although a style revision may very well come about at the same time as your story revision. It all depends on you and what kind of storyteller you are. In the end, when you read your story, you should be able to tell if you have somehow deleted the magic. In that case, revise for magic! I don't know if any of this makes sense to you. My main point is to always first revise for story, if possible. You may have to do that in some backward manner, depending on your personal makeup. But, in the end, you want to have produced a unfied whole with everything leading to your final product of a story. So you keep revising until you get there, and then you look back and make sure you haven't ruined it. Good luck! I hope this is helpful.

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I struggle with this a lot. Often I'll identify what I believe is a flaw in a story, but find that the flaw is built out of a bunch of things I like. I could eliminate the flaw, but at what cost? I also recognize that no piece of writing is perfect, so there will be flaws no matter what I do, but is this flaw one of the good ones, or not? I like things a little malformed, but I also like things smooth and elegant. Sometimes I will accuse myself of calling a story done out of simple exhaustion, or laziness, or a lack of the proper work ethic. Is the story "good enough," or am I banishing it to mediocrity by even entertaining the question?

Writing is hard.

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I read my work out loud several times to get the rhythm, and then as I read it out loud, I hear where my voice stalls, where a word stumbles, or how a sentence doesn’t flow, sometimes, the word does taste right. It’s clunky, or it doesn’t sound the way people speak or think. Other people record their readings and then listen to the recording to find where they lose the beat. For me, reading out loud works best. It's like my mind is self-correcting my work as I read it out loud.

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I’ve also asked myself the same questions about revision. Those first drafts seemed to have been written so magically I didn’t want to change anything. It was as if whatever I’d written was somehow sacred. But over time I realized that no matter how magical the story seemed to me, if a reader didn’t experience the magic too, I needed to figure out how to convey the magical quality of the story through revision. For example, segments I wrote in one character’s voice could be fit into another character’s voice, if it’s essential information, or something one character sees in an early draft can appear to another character in a later draft. Sometimes when I’m writing, its as if I were seeing a movie, and I’m just transcribing the action. There have been occasions when something happens that I don’t understand, but I keep it in the draft. Not too long ago, I had insight into what something I’d “seen” meant and I conveyed the meaning by developing it further. Another time, I knew what an object in the story was, but had to go back into the story and add a reason for the appearance of that object. In these cases, I’d say the first drafts offer clues, and subsequent drafts further develop the clues, or lead me and my characters to take another path. I also know the feeling that sometimes the supposed facts in a story don’t quite match up, but if they’re unimportant I just say to myself, well the character who thinks that is mistaken, and my narrator is unreliable anyway, so it’s no big deal. As for over-working drafts, I know I’ve done that too. I couldn’t stop rereading the finished text and kept adding words here and there. I later went back and cleaned up those over-worked sentences and removed the unnecessary words. It's easy to go off on some weird tangent and then I say to myself, what was I thinking? And I have to clean up the mess I made.

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One thing that was not mentioned was the use of a critique group that sees the story new when the writer has spent hours upon hours revising. I have found this kind of group invaluable to crafting something that still contains the fun we want to see in our work.

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Unquestionably the most challenging task in writing, along with all the others.

For me, as with much in writing, the voice is the guide. I'm not even sure what the voice in a story will turn out to be, but it's somewhere inside my skull it will emerge in time. When it does it's pretty well always that of my narrator, who is my protagonist and occasionally not just my protagonist. That voice becomes my instrument, and like any instrument it must be tuned.

This takes time, and many revisions, many micro-adjustments to the words on the page until it sounds right. Like the voice you heard somewhere in your head when you began writing the story. The tuning is kind of like George's analogy of the optician flipping lenses: is it better like this? Or like this? Lovely thought that. And once the instrument is tuned so it sounds real, the magic can happen. Your ear will tell you when you hit a flat note and need to adjust again.

After countless revisions the story can finally come alive and the instrument disappear altogether, leaving only the music of story.

What I try for anyway.

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I read aloud. Sometimes I get this sinking feeling that there's still something wrong-it's like a foul smell in the refrigerator. You might not know what it is, but it's bad. At other times, I just don't know whether I'm finished or not, because the part of your brain that makes hair-thin decisions gets tired easily. I make a cup of tea, and read a printed copy, fast, without respect. If there's something that I can improve, I mark it in red. Then I fix ONLY those mistakes, print it, and call it a night. If you've got that sour-milk smell in your literary nostrils, you have to keep working. But when you get to the point where you just don't know whether it's all right or not, you should get the hell of of there, because you can get very obsessive at that point.

I've also found that if you know where the problem is, you should just remove it and put it in another file. That way, you have to face the bad paragraph, instead of stalling and gilding the lily all around it.

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Restoring the reading-mind to freshness is a great way to phrase it... After finishing my fourth revision of a story in as many days, I'm beginning to wonder whether my reading-mind is too fresh or not fresh enough. I find myself cutting, then re-adding, then re-removing, and finally re-re-adding the same minor lines. It's kind of like toggling between images on one of those "spot the difference" puzzles.

Unfortunately I have no advice to add that hasn't already been commented, but if nothing else Story Club is always a wonderful reassurance that I'm not alone.

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George, I'm curious, after your wife's feedback on Pastoralia, did you work resume work from the unfun draft, or did you go back to a previous draft?

Personally, I don't usually think in terms of editing, but just cycle between thinking, rewriting, thinking, rewriting, over and over, until I like it. Sometimes I'll drop the cursor in the middle of an old sentence and start rewriting inside of it, but I'm never, like, crossing things out with a red pen and drawing little loops. I can spend hours just pacing around the livingroom and thinking. Which I'm told isn't good, but I like doing it, and no one's paying me, so.

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Feb 16·edited Feb 16

This makes me think of something Martin Amis wrote:

"Poets are familiar with the sudden surmise that their revisions had better be discontinued (and quickly too), that their so-called improvements are starting to do real harm. Even the novelist shares this fear: you are nervously tampering with an inspiration that is going dead on you."

He goes on to paraphrase Northrop Frye:

"...the begetter of a poem or a novel is more like a mid-wife than a mother: the aim is to get the child into the world with as little damage as possible - and if the creature is alive it will scream to be liberated from 'the navel strings of the feeding tubes of the ego.'"

How many times have you found yourself here? ...nervously tampering with an inspiration that is going dead on you. I love that.

From The Rub of Time. (Author's Note and Acknowledgements "The Natural Sin of Language.")

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What a great discussion! I have a story that was accepted. It was about a doctor whose country patient has a badly broken leg and he won't go into the hospital. So the doctor operates in the kitchen. The farmer has two Percherons, one a colt, and the editor wanted them taken out. I knew they were there for a reason but I didn't know what the reason was! So I took it out. And after publication, I reread the story and knew right away why the horses were there. These racist, foul-mouthed, know-all people loved them. It was their only sign of deep feeling. The people, bad as they were, and uncooperative, etc., loved those horses. It made them human. I put the horses back in, but was careful to see that they fit into that story arc better.

I often over-write right after I've cut cut cut. I'll cut to the tendons (tension) and then go in and put in the whatevers. I often overdo. My key is to read it over and note where I've kept the tension and where the details or backstory kill it. So I can whittle again, but being careful of voice as well as tension. Can't wait to see what tricks everybody uses! This is sooooo valuable.

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This reminds me of Carver's "A Small, Good Thing," compared to Gordon Lish's edited version "The Bath." I'm still in the camp of liking Carver's first version. It has a beating heart. Lish's, to me, went overboard. It's the skeleton without the soul. It leaves me cold in the end. And I realize I'm going out on a limb here...and may be in the minority. Lish's version is seen to be the stellar version. I read once that an editor (not sure who), for years, felt that Lish's version was the better one, and then he had a child, and he changed his opinion. I DO have a child, but I've stayed firmly in that first camp, before and after. It's a good example, though, of an example of drastic revision, if any of you are unfamiliar with it. [And it's telling that Carver published his original version later.] xo

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Well, after a long day of translating (Russian, as it happens . . . ), I read this post . . . backwards. And then, I turned my office chair askance, so that I could write diagonally - anything to put me off my perch of assuredness or surety. Come at it oblique(ly), adjacent(ly), anything to allow it access . . . to me.

In a way, it feels as though I'm a crucible, where things gather about me, *seeking* to gain entry any way they can. They, these ideas, these thoughts and visions, want to join us, have expression just as much as we want them to. It's a partnership, so all of that tweaking, writing and rewriting, pausing just before the next word feels a bit personal, but it's really not. We're working together, this thing, this draft or canvas or print on screen which is an expression of something else, and I.

And each one of us is, really, a unique crucible, where it happens and takes surprising turns available only to each of us individually, with perhaps some crossover or apparent similarities.

One way I've kind of worked out, over the years, is that there are two of me: one, the 'ego,' which is bit overcontrolling and all-knowing, and a lighter, more spontaneous inhabitant (of me) who gets to have a go whenever I let him/it. This (the latter one) is the one who, when presented with a piece of paper, has all kinds of new appearing. I don't really control it, although parts of me are aware.

Maybe those empty plastic bottles in the back of the car, all over the seat and floor, are meant to be there. Overcontrol, and the process may lose its vitality.

The other part to it all, whatever we do, is connection. This must be what all humans, in their various ways and activities, their choice of profession (what we 'profess'), are aiming for. Who does not want to improve, reach for the new, develop, become greater as a person, not in the Joneses' eyes, but in those of the Universe? Why write in the first place . . . ?

Sometimes it's like that VHS tape, it won't go in, but then, seemingly magically, there is a click!, and it's sucked into the VHS player, and a whole new atmosphere appears. Sometimes the revision, especially rewrites, are like that as well.

Something wants to turn me back, get me sitting in my usual pattern. It's comfortable. It's known. It may allow for connection, but if it's tied to the former (in the above description), it may not be.

Now, back to the glories of Russian Federation Ethics Committees and Principal Investigators.

This is a liberating, even healing, ecology.

Thank you to all who contribute, even by their presence, listening.

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Your advice this week reads as a dare. Why is it so scary to "keep cutting until you ruin it"?

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