The Impossibility of Revising Your Own Work

Full vitae revising your own work

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If you trust the internet, Albert Einstein once said something like "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." On a less-lofty note, the novelist Robert Stone supposedly quipped, "Revising is like cutting your own hair."

I used to believe that in addition to teaching graduate students to read like writers, I could help them learn how to revise their own work.

Now what I think is that I can teach them a few tricks: shortcuts to avoid common mistakes in the revision process; pointers on how to omit needless words; reminders that a manuscript often doesn’t start where you first think it starts. But I’m convinced that, when it comes to real revision — the act of seeing clearly what has made it to the page and deciding whether it deserves to be there — very few of us are capable of doing that important job for our own writing.

In Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb describes her work as a therapist and lets us eavesdrop on her conversations with clients. She also relates stories from her own therapy. Smart as Gottlieb is, she’s as blind as the rest of us when she’s in the soup. Things that seem obvious to her therapist, and to the reader, come as surprises to the narrator.

Likewise for academics. No matter how much abstract and theoretical knowledge we have, or how much great advice we can muster in evaluating other people’s work, when we try to apply those insights to our own work, most often either we don’t follow our own writing advice or we can’t see what we’re missing.

When I was working on my last book, I was shocked and amazed at how easily the manuscript came together. It was, oddly, a pleasure to write. I shipped it off to my editor, thinking I’d finally figured out this whole author thing. For the first time, I hadn’t gotten stuck in the middle of a book project. I’d mastered the craft.

Then I heard from my editor. Instead of perfection, she saw some big, honking organizational problems in the manuscript. They seemed obvious as soon as she pointed them out. How had I not spotted the issues?

Instead of beating myself up, I accepted a new truth: We all need editors, all the time. And then I thanked every deity I could name for having an editor to protect me from myself.

If you’ve ever read Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, you might remember this part: "People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated."

Maybe I just haven’t met the exception — that rare writer who produces priceless prose effortlessly (and whom the rest of us would happily hate).

But here is the reality: Each piece of writing presents different problems. You may have gained a few new skills, learned a couple of clever devices that you can put to use, but each time you sit down to write something new, you’re starting over.

In my own work, I can take a piece of work most of the way, and I am aware of some of my intellectual tics and writerly bad habits, but I still manage to overlook major conceptual gaps and gaffes. An organizational structure that makes sense to me might have an Augean stink to readers who see only a bunch of muck. The confusing parts, the omissions, the ellipses are all clear in my head — if only readers could join me there.

Likewise, my experience reading scholarly manuscripts as a book editor for several presses showed me — once I had the confidence to realize that my struggles usually resulted, not from my own intellectual inadequacies, but from writers not doing a good job explaining their ideas — that even the most brilliant writers don’t always get their ideas from brain to page in a way that makes sense to readers.

As a tenured professor in a creative-writing program, I have been a peer reviewer for a number of how-to guides on writing, published by well-established and mightily credentialed authors for university presses. I’ve spotted big problems with their manuscripts — both conceptually and on a line-by-line level. Keep in mind: These were excellent and established writing and editing professionals who nonetheless proved unable to follow their own good advice.

Workshopping is a mainstay of creative-writing programs. The conceit is that the writer is a fly on the wall of an editorial meeting, keeping silent while overhearing a discussion, sometimes related in withering terms, of the problems in the manuscript. Maybe that model can lead to better prose for some people, but I’ve given up on it, for several reasons.

First, seeing how another writer’s work goes wrong doesn’t necessarily save you from making the same mistakes. Second, and more important, this approach can bring out the worst, most competitive sides of people who are uncertain about their own status. I’ve spent years watching good writers face hours of criticism for a misplaced comma, or because someone wants — needs — to hear more about the grandma character.

I’ve decided the traditional workshop only makes students better at workshopping. Too many people use the experience to tear apart a peer in an attempt to feel better about their own writing.

Instead, I now use a different model: the writing group. In a formal or informal writing group, friends or colleagues get together to discuss one another’s work. The members take turns talking about what they are trying to accomplish with their draft and respond directly to questions about points of confusion. A member can redirect the conversation when it starts to veer into the weeds. ("Um, actually, this piece has nothing to do with the grandma. It’s really about the dog.") Members of a writing group become invested in the work — and, thus, the success — of other writers.

Sometimes it doesn’t work so well for exactly the reasons the workshop model was invented. Beginning writers can spend the whole meeting talking about what they did — or thought they were doing. So it can be useful to set a timer to make sure everyone’s draft gets the same amount of discussion.

Too often, for most of us, the first reader of an important piece of writing is someone in a position to reject it. Before that point, we all need to seek out informal editors — people whom we can trust and who will tell us the truth. The real gift of a writing group is that, if you’re lucky, one or two people will really see what you’re trying to do and can help you get there.

When it comes to books, perhaps even better than a writing group is having one person — an ideal reader — by your side. It’s best if it’s a literary agent or an editor, someone with knowledge of how books are put together and experience in the publishing industry.

Revision is as essential to the writing process as pinning down words on the page. Once a piece is finished, simply not looking at it for a while can help focus attention on wonky paragraphs and hinky sentences. But conceptually and organizationally, a re-vision — a different way to see what you’re trying to do — is hard to accomplish on your own. You need a little help from your friends (or professionals).

After hacking at my own bangs for years with sometimes tragic results, I’ve finally learned to reach for the phone rather than the scissors.

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