My mother’s greatest fear for me as a writer is that I’ll never stop revising. When beginning writers learn about revision they always ask, “How do you know when to stop?” My mother, and possibly these students, view revision as a path to perfection—which we know is endless and packed with illusions. I prefer thinking about revision as child-rearing. Even if your twenty-something isn’t fully mature, he’s able to interact in the world on his own. Let him go.
That said, most writers (myself included) have a tendency to think their work is done prematurely. My agent worked with me for two years to get my novel in shape. My first publisher asked that I rewrite my memoir with two timeframes rather than three; this took me a full year. So how do we know when to revise and when we’re done? Here are the questions I recommend asking in response to a revision suggestion or idea:
- Does it offer you the chance to learn something about your subject? Will you grow by continuing to revise?
- Does it offer you the chance to learn about craft?
- Will the change help bring about wholeness in the manuscript?
- Will the change help your story land more solidly on the truth?
- If you’re resisting the suggestion, is it because the change feels wrong for the project? Or because it would require too much effort?
When a work is complete, it feels balanced. It has great integrity. Responses from readers you respect (writing coaches, writing groups, agents, editors) no longer resonate with your inner tuning fork; suggestions tend to contradict one another or be petty. Or you receive unanimous affirmation that your work is done. Usually at the end of a project, an author longs to cut the umbilical cord and move his or her creative energy elsewhere. It’s time for the piece to live its own life separate from the author. But remember that finding a publisher may or may not be a sign of completion; books that desperately need development get published daily, and remarkable books are rejected all the time. Once again we must trust the story, and the whisperings of our own heart.
Snowless? 45 degree days in January? Sure, like everyone else I’m reveling in the sun’s warmth and I appreciate being able to bike through this winter, but every time fellow Minnesotans wax poetic about this lovely weather I feel an awful sense of doom. The elm trees need long periods of icy temperatures to ward off Dutch Elm disease. Cold wards off the tent caterpillars; it permits native fish to survive in our lakes. I’m afraid the immediate pleasure of warm afternoon walks could blind us to the long-term gifts of our normally cold climate.
Emily has begun a weekly Qi Gong practice of praying for the earth’s healing. Usually in such matters I’m infinitely practical: If I want to end global warming, I need to radically change my lifestyle and support those working for systemic change. This is prayer in action. To some small degree I am culpable in the harm done to the earth; asking God to do something about it seems hypocritical and irresponsible. God has no hands but ours, Theresa of Avila taught, so we must pray with our hands. Thus Emily and I rarely purchase new items, we share a car, we grow vegetables, we write letters and donate money.
But these choices seem paltry in the face of, say, the ongoing drought in the southwest that threatens my sister’s home with fire or the torrential rains in Guatemala that have caused a ten-foot rise in Lake Atitlan, forcing people from their homes. The problem is huge. I feel hopeless, powerless. And yet it is precisely circumstances like these that invite us beyond ourselves, out of a practical mindset and into faith, the realm of possibility and mystery. Praying for the earth’s healing isn’t a cop-out; it is a way to invite a loving, generative, just energy more fully into ourselves and the world. Prayer helps us acknowledge our limitations. Prayer also breaks apart those limitations by foisting us into a place of interconnection. What is possible in the invisible, soulful realm can be birthed onto our fleshy earth.
So let us pray.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
When tweaking language during the final stages of revision, strive for clarity first. Language is meant to communicate. Sound, rhythm, pacing, word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, paragraphing—all stylistic choices—should convey the content rather than call attention to themselves. Take Strunk and White’s advice: “The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style—all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”
But within the scope of clear language are many choices, and fine writers opt for words that show as well as tell. Let’s look at a passage from Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories:
When I am the reader, not the writer, I too fall into the lovely illusion that the words before me which read so inevitably, must also have been written exactly as they appear, rhythm and cadence, language and syntax, the powerful waves of the sentences laying themselves on the smooth beach of the page one after another faultlessly.
But here I sit before a yellow legal pad, and the long page of the preceding two paragraphs is a jumble of crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order. A mess. The mess of my mind trying to find out what it wants to say. This is a writer’s frantic, grabby mind, not the poised mind of a reader waiting to be edified or entertained.
These paragraphs feel effortless, unpretentious, and perfectly clear. But look carefully at Hampl’s choices. In the long, undulating sentence about reading, she pairs “rhythm and cadence” and “language and syntax,” simulating “powerful waves” of sentences. In the paragraph about writing, she omits the “and” in her list: “crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order.” She follows this with two incomplete sentences, giving her readers a visceral experience of stopping and starting. The word “grabby” is colloquial, tactile, and low-brow. Her language shows as well as tells.
Whether readers are conscious of these choices is irrelevant. Readers feel language; we have bodily responses with or without consciousness. Writers succeed when every aspect of their work serves the work’s heartbeat.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew