Writerly Advice: Death by 1000 Cuts

Most serious writers learn from experience why revision and editing has to be an important part of the writing process. So many of us have had the experience of working arduously to create a specific image or character, only to learn after talking to a reader or a workshop that we haven’t succeeded in delivering our vision to the reader. Of course, this is one of the things that makes writing an art form: you can approach perfection, but you can never quite get there. You’re always striving to capture the elusive thing that’s in your mind because the words themselves are an imperfect medium for your idea.

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But we try. And try. But how long do we keep trying before we call something done? Should we rework our poems, stories, and chapters endlessly until they see print somewhere, or is there some way to tell when we have made that piece of writing the closest, clearest approximation of our vision so that we can move on to other projects? The answer is, of course, different for different writers. I think most of us can agree, though, that if you’re not careful, you can edit something to death. You can poke at it so many times that eventually it just lays there on the pavement bleeding out of its myriad wounds.

I do not profess to have any concrete answers here and would encourage you to approach those who claim they do with skepticism. I can, however, tell you from personal experience what doesn’t work: Revising constantly based on different feedback from different readers.

I don’t know what the magic number is, but I do believe there is finite number of times you can workshop something before it loses its vitality, that original vision that drove you to write it in the first place. Revision should be about helping you achieve your unique vision, not trying to please everyone. The feedback you receive is a means to reach your own goals with the work, not an end in itself.

Inundating one reader with multiple drafts that have minor changes. Revision means adding or deleting scenes and potentially reorganizing the structure of your story, poem, chapter, etc. It does not mean changing a word from “desk” to “credenza.” (That’s editing.) It’s a beautiful thing to have someone who is willing to read your work. Don’t abuse them by offering too many drafts. Just like you, after the third or fourth time they look at it, things start to glaze over.

Spending too long on one project. One of the most exciting facets of any artistic process is the knowledge that you have created something concrete others can experience and enjoy. If you never call the thing done, you’ve never finished that creative process. Bringing an idea to fruition does not always mean publication. You the creator have to grapple with your own artistic conscience to determine when something is finished.

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Grapple is the operative word there. How do you know when it’s finished? Perhaps it’s a set number of drafts. (One is not enough and 1,000 is probably too many.) Perhaps it’s a deadline you’ve developed based on an upcoming contest or one that is driven by time constraints in your own life (trying to finish that novel before summer is over, for example.) Or maybe if you’re not sure, you just take a few days or weeks away from the draft entirely. When you return, if you find you have fresh ideas for revision, apply them. If you dread picking that piece of writing up again or if you’re distracted by something new you want to work on instead, it’s probably because the previous project is finished or very close to it.

So yes, prick at your draft. Accept that bloodletting is a part of any art form. But apply your red ink with restraint, and, in the end, know when to call something finished. That’s a beautiful thing.


Jeff Sanger received his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and teaches English composition and creative writing at Glendale Community College. In October, he will be running a free Saturday Workshop: Where Does Your Story Happen? The workshop is free and open to the public.

Writerly Advice: Stegner’s Seven Rules of Writing

Wallace Stegner is perhaps the best short story and novel writer you’ve never heard of – even more unusual for you AZ students, perhaps, because he wrote often of the Southwest. His novel Angle of Repose won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize. Another, The Spector Bird, won the National Book Award in 1977. His short stories were collected in 1990; three of them won O. Henry Prizes. (His literary agent at the time infamously told him to quit writing short stories before he used up all his “openings and closings” – sadly, Stegner followed her advice).

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Wallace Stegner

Most importantly for us creative writers, Stegner founded the Stanford Writing Program in 1945 (I’ve heard it said mostly in response to his objection to what he considered harsh techniques employed at Iowa Writer’s Workshop). He continued to teach at Stanford until his retirement in 1971. Graduates of that Stanford MFA program include Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Harriet Doerr, Tillie Olsen, Raymond Carver and Larry McMurtry. Stanford carries on Stegner’s legacy with the Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a prestigious award and position given out to writers at all stages of their career, without degree requirements or concern for genre. If you’re serious about your writing, view the link above and maybe set a goal for yourself.

Stegner “came of age” in an era when not many people thought you could teach or be taught creative writing (a good blog subject in and of itself?). In his short book On Teaching and Writing Fiction, Stegner offered these seven “rules of thumb” for writers (pp. 94-95):

  1. Start in the middle of things; start in motion.
  2. Stay in motion by not letting the summary intrude; keep the summary feeding into the scene in hints and driblets, by what Ipsen called the “uncovering” technique.
  3. Never explain too much; a reader is offended if he cannot participate and use his mind and imagination, and a story loses much of its suspense the moment everything is explained.
  4. Stay out of your story; pick a point of view and (especially in the short story) stick with it. Nobody has less right in your story than yourself.
  5. Don’t show off in your style. The writing should match the characters and the situation, not you. This applies as well to obscenity and profanity as to other matters. Where character and situation call for them, they belong; elsewhere they may be a sign that the author is trying to catch someone’s attention.
  6. Nothing is to be gained, except a breaking of the dramatic illusion, by attempts to find substitutes for the word “said” in dialogue tags. “Said” is a colorless word that disappears; elegant variations show up.
  7. Stopping a story is as hard as saying goodnight. Learn to do it cleanly, without leftovers or repetitions.

I suggest you print these out and hang them up in a prominent spot in your writing area.

I did.

PS. Stegner’s eighth rule? “Revise! Revise! Revise!” (He says the difference between a good writer and a great writer is their ability to revise their own work and make it better.)

Looking for more writerly advice? Come to our next Saturday Morning Workshop, tomorrow (10/13) from 10AM to noon. Jayme Cook talks tension, atmosphere, and genre writing.


This post was contributed by Gary Lawrence, one of GCC’s English and Creative Writing faculty. Gary teaches online CRW courses for us, including CRW170 (Introduction to Fiction Writing) and CRW270 (Intermediate Fiction Writing), both of which he’s prepping for Spring 2019. View his courses, along with our other CRW offerings, here: GCC Find-A-Class.