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Everything You Write Will Need a Rewrite
And if you think it doesn't, congratulations! You're one in a million.
Hello again, friends. I’m up to my ears in outside stuff and feeling a bit overwhelmed again, so I’m sending along a repeat of a story I did a while ago but seems pertinent whenever it gets talked about: the subject of rewriting.
I’m guessing all of you have opinions about it. I personally like to rewrite almost as much as I like getting down that first draft. When I’m polishing and it goes well—when I’m getting a shine—I’m having fun.
When I ruin it by polishing down to the finish, I’m in a funk. I go off to eat something that’s bad for me, or take a walk that’s good for me, and if I get back to it later—maybe even weeks later—it’s because something called me back. Then I’m happy again.
I never said it was going to make sense.
Then there’s this: I love to talk about rewriting almost as much as I love doing it. So can we talk? Just remember, while we’re talking about rewriting we don’t have to be rewriting.
Think of it as a perk.
First published at Medium, July, 2019:
Yesterday I frantically emailed an editor who is holding a story for edits and asked him to hold off on that revision and take this revision instead. On re-reading the first revision, I realized, even after I’d re-read it at least a dozen times before sending, that it needed a clarifying paragraph that would anchor what came before to what came after. How could I have missed it?
I missed it because I knew what I meant. I had lived it. But without that single, crucial paragraph, a reader who didn’t know me might have missed the why of what I’d written. So I took a chance at irritating an already overwhelmed editor by asking him to throw out Revision One and go with Revision Two. I almost promised him there wouldn’t be a Revision Three, but, of course, I couldn’t do that.
Because I know me.
This morning I re-read a story I’d written months ago — a story about, of all things, how to look at your writing— and found a paragraph so clunky, so murky, I had to read it twice to get what I was getting at. Not a good sign. So I made some minor adjustments, maybe only noticeable by me.
This is the original paragraph:
There are thousands of stories about writing here. Many of them are exceptional, full of thoughtful advice, but way too many of them end up as anguished personal confessions about what the post writer sees as his or her own failures; too many stories about threatening to quit writing; too many about how unfair the world is when it won’t recognize their writing. There are more stories here about the downside of being a writer than any other topic. I mean any other topic.
And this is the revision:
There are thousands of stories about writing here. Many of them are exceptional — full of thoughtful advice — but way too many of them end up as anguished personal confessions about what the post writer sees as his or her own failures.
So many stories about threatening to quit writing; so many about how unfair the world is when it won’t recognize their talent. There are more stories here about the downside of being a writer than any other topic. I mean any other topic.
I think it’s better now, but if it isn’t I’ll fix it again. (I could fix that sentence right there by adding a couple of commas but I’m going to leave it alone for now. For now.)
I wrote a political blog for 10 years that almost nobody saw unless I cross-posted my pieces in other venues. I go back to that blog every now and then and re-read my previous works to see if I can use them somewhere else. While I’m there I do repairs on my words, knowing full well there’s almost no chance anyone is going to read the newly polished version. I don’t do it for them, I do it for me. I want my writing to be the best it can be, and if it’s going to live forever, or at least as long as the internet exists, my job may never be done.
I’m okay with that. Most of the time.
I love rewriting, but sometimes the downside is there’s never an end to it. I’ve never been good at letting my words live as they were born. It’s like plastic surgery on an otherwise workable body. There will always be imperfections. There’s always something more to be done.
I encourage rewriting every chance I get. We need to be our own toughest editors. But we also need to know when to let it go. I’ve written about perfectionism before, and I spend a lot of time working to find that point where I can live with what I’m about to publish.
But what happens when it’s out there, locked, and I can’t get at it to do that one last revision I’m absolutely sure will make it perfect? What happens is what should happen. Someone thought enough of my work to publish it, and if it’s good enough for them it should be good enough for me.
The problem comes when I become the editor making the decision to publish and I don’t trust my own judgment. There are multitudes of manuscripts in varying stages of completion languishing in my files. I should be fussing about how many there are, but I’d rather be fussing about getting it right.
I’ve been that writer who thought it was good enough when it wasn’t. I still haven’t lived some of it down — even if it’s only me who thinks it’s garbage. That may be why I’m such a hardass now. I know what it feels like to send out bad writing, only to regret that it ever saw the light of day.
But even as I write this, the last thing I want to do is discourage writers from sending out their work. What’s the worst that can happen if you don’t get it right? It’s not as if you’re building bridges or airplanes or things that really mean something if you make a mistake.
You’re the only one who matters. If you’re happy with what you’ve written, good for you. If you’re happier after a few rewrites, even better.
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