When I was in my late teens, I would proofread my dad's market-research reports for extra pocket money. They needed it; my dad had a habit of inserting a comma every time he paused to look at his notes, take a phone call, or leave the room for a snack.
So, among other things, I would remove all those extraneous commas.
Unfortunately, he had another proofreader – a professional one.
One time he told me, “When you proofread, you take all my commas out. And when she proofreads, she puts them all back.”
That summarizes how I feel about the revision process: you could spend your whole life taking commas out and then putting them back in again. I love drafting, because there is a clear beginning, middle, and end. You know you're finished because everything you meant to put into the book is in the book, in more or less the order you intended.
But then, one day, you sit down to begin rewriting. That's when you
realize – with horror, embarrassment, or even a sense of mistaken
identity – that the book you thought you wrote in no way
resembles this book at all. As you read your long, rambling,
semi-coherent sentences, you wonder, “Who wrote this? It's awful!” And then it sinks in: you wrote it. And you're going to have to fix it. And it's going to take forever.
Oh, I get it. Rewriting is important – probably more important than
the writing itself. After all, once you get a look at your draft, you
think, “Thank God I didn't let you out of the house looking like
But that doesn't mean I have to like it.
I have friends who adore revision. My friend Katie, who works at the
newspaper I left two years ago to have a baby, said she really enjoys
going back over her text, again and again, to make it sparkle. My
author friend Jon blogs pretty often about his revision process, with
the kind of enthusiasm most people reserve for high-intensity sports
or really great meals. To my mind, he might as well be raving about
scrubbing the toilet. But his books get published and favorably
reviewed, so I try to evoke him when I sit down to do the deed myself.
Of course, I also keep Anne Lamott in the back of my mind, and her
advice about “shitty first drafts,” as she put it in Bird By
Bird: “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not
rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is
to write really, really shitty first drafts. … All good writers write
them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific
Right now I am revising my most recent book, a nonfiction guide for
parents to the most controversial teen influences: violent video
games, the occult, heavy metal, and so on. Everything you've been told
will make your kid homicidal or suicidal. I wrote it during the second
year of my daughter's life, through sleep deprivation and tantrums and
shifting nap schedules, stealing time when I could.
At first, I was impressed that someone as tired as I was could string
coherent sentences together, let alone compose 90,000 words of mostly
intelligent prose. In fact, my first impression of the finished draft
was that it read like it was written by someone with many more
functioning brains cells than I have. I allowed myself be impressed
for a little while.
But then I sat down to revise it, and I wanted to put my head in the
compost bin. This was after I let several editor friends read
sections of it and provide feedback. I thought I was composing
readable, approachable prose. Instead, I was writing sentences such,
“If you're worried or even frightened about the music you hear blaring
out of your teenager's bedroom – or the names and symbols you see on album covers, posters, and t-shirts – then the last thing you probably want to do is pay more attention to them.”
Oh, there's nothing technically wrong with it. It's grammatically
correct. It makes a point. It's just that it goes on. And on. And on.
Other sections of the book have sentences like this one, only they're
weighed down with long, academic words that made even my editor
friends chafe. If they couldn't sit through it, I can't expect
heartland parents to pick up the book.
I've already taken one pass through most of the book, doing what I
thought was a good cleanup job. But now I'm taking another pass and
realizing just how much more rewriting it needs. It's like each draft
clears the way so I can see everything else that's wrong. Sure, it's
an important process, and the book will only benefit from it. But it's
such a slog – one that doesn't have a clear ending point. I don't do
well without clear ending points. And I know that when I find a
publisher for it, the editor will want yet another rewrite. I'm game,
but I can't say I'm looking forward to it.
When I was working as a reporter for daily newspapers, I could tell
when I was done writing and revising, because it was time to send the
story to my editor. I'm accustomed to that kind of deadline, one that
comes at you like the tunnel-cleaner in Labyrinth. This time, I
don't have a deadline. Theoretically, the revisions could go on
When I offered to write this guest blog, I thought I was going to
offer some tips on rewriting, but I find that I don't really have any.
I mean, when I sit down for a revision session, I pretend I'm not
doing it. I distract myself with Facebook or blogs. I write something
else (like this piece – nevermind that it needs revising, too).
Anything but rewriting. And then, when I can finally focus on
the task, it's only for an hour or so at a time – more than that, and
I feel like I'm crawling out of my skin.
But then, I read back through the hour's work and realize how much
better my book is. How many fewer snags and hiccups there are in the
sentences. How much clearer the meaning.
At least, until the next time I open the document and see how much
more needs to be done.
Bio: Beth Winegarner is a journalist, author, and poet currently
splitting her time between toddler-raising and writing a new
nonfiction book on controversial teen subcultures. She also blogs
about these subcultures at http://backwardmessages.wordpress.com, and
has had pieces published recently in Mother Jones and
Radical Parenting. She lives in San Francisco with her partner
and daughter. For more, visit http://www.bethwinegarner.com.