I Am, Needless to Say, Perfect the First Time

ruined building and restored version

The revised version

Back when Fred and Wilma Flintstone still lived in Bedrock (the late 1970s), I was in college. While I was there, my college sponsored a science fiction convention, and since I was a fan, I attended. For the highlight of the convention, we brought in a very famous science fiction writer. I have just checked Wikipedia to learn that he is still alive, so I guess I won’t name him, though if you’re also a science fiction fan, you’d certainly know him.

At one of the talks given by the Famous Science Fiction Writer, he began telling us what a good writer he is, and he even at one point talked about his ability to write so well the writing wouldn’t need revision, and he could publish it like it was. He was so good, he said, that he didn’t necessarily need to revise.

I want to pause here to say that I have a theory about people who insist on telling you how wonderful they are (and by “theory” I mean bedrock truth). I’ve learned this truth from very close acquaintance with a family member who has illustrated it in detail. Anyone who feels compelled to tell you how good they are is actually seriously broken inside, cringing that anyone might discover the truth. Not that I’m going to name any presidents of the United States.

As it happens, the Famous Science Fiction Writer really is good at what he does, in spite of his obvious insecurity and loud insistence otherwise. But is it possible to be so good you don’t need to revise your writing?

I used to tell my students in first-year prisoner English class that anyone can write below their own level of ability. A college freshman can do it, a famous writer can do it. But to write the best you are capable of, you cannot do this, ever . . . EVER, if you do not revise. Now if lazy writing below your capacity is good enough, and sometimes, frankly, it is, then fine. Dash off an email. Post something on Twitter.

Writing is a complicated activity, requiring attention to many different things, such as the overall subject being written about, choosing which details to add, matching subjects and verbs, spelling the words correctly, getting the punctuation correct. The way the human mind operates, the way we focus, we cannot think about all of these things at the same time. Instead, we focus our attention, in a kind of jittery back and forth motion, on a couple of points, then stop and move to another: “Did I make the really important point I was thinking about a minute ago? Yes, oh, and is that word spelled right?”

Even if the writing process itself were not so inherently scattered, if you are doing the best you can do, that quality is created from repeatedly going over what you’ve written, to find a better sentence structure that you didn’t think of the first time, to add better details than you started with, to cut out something that you now realize isn’t working, and so on. This is real work. And humans are lazy, so it’s understandable why people don’t want to do this.

A friend who is a writer was just telling me about revising a novel she’s worked on for years, a book done in three sections. She has decided to discard one of the three sections, the middle of the book. If you’re not a writer, that probably sounds drastic, though it doesn’t sound that extreme to me. I know how hard it must have been for her to decide this, as I know her well enough to know what an emotional connection she would have to that section. I also think the book will be much more focused and thus improved.

The novel I’m currently revising has been through a similar process, with similar extensive cutting. As I was reading over the book to begin the revision process, considering what I might do with it, I went from thinking “this is a useless, irredeemable mess” to thinking “well, the parts with the two female characters sort of have something in common” and I wondered what if that was all that was there. If I cut out the male characters (half the book), what would happen? I tried it, and suddenly the book made more sense. That was the first step in a long process toward a better book.

Back in those long-gone days when my college held the science fiction convention, I knew that I was supposed to revise writing. My understanding of revision in those days, though, was to change a sentence here and there. It took me many years to realize that the best way to revise is to love what you write, then kill it if you have to.

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