Thursday, May 5, 2011

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 10: I knew that!

"It's funny. You really didn't tell me anything I didn't already know about the places in the piece that need work. But for some reason, I just kept hoping I could avoid it."

I heard the above quite recently from a student in one of my writing classes, after sending back a piece of creative nonfiction, in which I noted three specific areas I felt needed further work. But I've heard it other times, too. And frankly, I remember thinking this very thing myself years ago when submitting work.

You know the drill, don't you? Oh, this section on page 4 is not really as good as it could be, but it's not really terrible either. Maybe X won't notice.

But X always does notice, right?

Really, how silly are we writers? If we can see what's not working, why would we expect that the perceptive writer, editor, or a writing instructor, who we trust with our work, would fail to notice? (And, if we are paying that person and/or investing our time, why would we want them not to notice?)

I guess it's not that we really believe, deep down, that we are going to get away with anything. The opposite is probably true: I believe most writers want to be called out when their prose isn't top notch. I think this habit -- of pretending we don't see our own writing flaws and hoping someone else doesn't either -- has more to do with not wanting to do battle with those two dreaded R words: Revision and Rewrite.

What we won't do sometimes to avoid that two-headed monster, right? Including turning in prose we know is not as well crafted as we are capable of producing. Including not doing the deep thinking that goes along with rewriting a section which feels too thin. Including hoping another perceptive writer, editor or writing instructor will give us a pass.

I've learned a lot over the years about making peace with revisions and rewriting. In fact, these days, I don't consider myself to be really, truly writing something (as opposed to doing a "brain dump" or playing around on the page) unless I'm in the thick of revisions. Lately, I'm something of a zealot now about how much a writer can grow through the acts of Revising and Rewriting.

Much to the sometime horror of some of my students, I use one of the R words -- Revision -- quite a lot, all the time, in fact. And I also on occasion let go with the other R word – Rewrite – in it most feared form, the one preceded by the C word: Complete. Complete Rewrite, I may suggest (or urge or demand). The kind with a blank sheet/screen. C'mon, it's good for the writing soul, I'll urge.

But it's not always so dire. More often, it's just about paying attention to what we already know needs work, and working on it some more. Revising.

If you think your work needs work, why wait for someone else to notice?

Note: You can read the rest of the Stuff My Writing Students Say series here.


Laraine Herring said...

Amen, Lisa! :-) Revision rocks.

lisa said...

So very true, Lisa! Thanks for the reminder, though. I'm working on a novel translation and there's one particular chapter that requires the dreaded Complete Rewrite/Retranslate. It's not something I'm particularly looking forward to, but sometimes it's the only way.