Monday, January 20, 2014

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 17. On slow cooking and fast writing.

"I'll get that revision to you real soon."

Oh, please don't. 

What I mean is yes do the revision, but please not so soon. Take your time. And then, take a little more time.

There are a lot of reasons writers want to quickly attack a draft and move on to the next draft, especially if it's a piece of work for which they've just received feedback. We want to maintain momentum, get to the page while what we've just heard/read through is still fresh; maybe we're excited by new insights the feedback has ignited. We have a class deadline, or limited time to devote to writing, so why not push on?

What's the rush?

Time spent not working on the next version of a draft is a gift. What you want to do now is not write, but think. The kind of thinking that requires more than a few minutes, a few hours, or even one night's sleep.  More time than you may be inclined to spend before you combust with the torture of not digging in right away.

This is a hard lesson to learn, and I've learned it myself the hard way a few times before it really sunk in.

More time between drafts is not a quaint suggestion, a luxury, or a throwback to when it took more energy to revise (typewriters, Wite-Out, etc.). Though it may seem as if time away from your pages is cheating or sloth, it's the opposite. It's showing respect for the process. 

We need to let what we've learned -- from an editor, teacher, writing friend -- marinate, simmer, stew, brew (and any other cooking metaphors you might like to add here; the idea being, fast food never satisfies). Put that draft on the back burner. Let it brine. Use the crock pot instead of the pressure cooker.

Figure out what you'll do with what you've just heard back about your work. What editing suggestions make sense? What comments surprised you? Where are you challenged? Does any of the feedback leave you confused? Do you want to try some of the suggestions?  Are some best left alone? How will you fill that plot hole you overlooked? And do you want to shift the focus of the essay the way everyone seemed to agree would make it more interesting?

I don't think I've ever been unhappy with a decision to spend more time between revisions, to let a piece of work rest. And I understand the impulse to dig right in, especially when you are involved in a class or workshop setting:  You want, first of all, to prove that you are able and willing to take in feedback and, if it makes sense, to let it propel you to a better draft. You want to turn work around before the class sessions end so that the same peer reviewers and same instructor/workshop leader can weigh in again on the revised material.

As a teacher/workshop leader/writing coach, I DO want to see your revised work - but it doesn't have to be next week, or depending on the length of time we will have together, even the week after that. I much prefer that you live with it a while longer, contemplate your options, spend some time away from your draft.

What bad thing might happen if you put it aside for a bit?  Unless you are aiming to submit it for publication for which a deadline or seasonal consideration is involved, 
I can't think of anything.  

I can think of several positive things that might happen. You'll gain new perspective. Figure out several ways to solve a writing challenge. Have the time to try out new craft skills. 

And -- this may be the most important -- you'll have the time to make a mess. Time, and the privacy of not sharing your fast turn-around revision, to try something different, to experiment, and sometimes to realize it doesn't work, and then try something else; to add then delete; to scrap entire sentences, paragraphs, pages and see what happens.

Many times, I have returned a piece of work with extensive comments and suggestions that require deep thinking, and then the next morning, an email arrives with the revision attached. Perhaps the writer thinks I'll be impressed, and I might be if I were teaching a class on writing for a daily news site. But most of the time, we're talking about personal essays, short stories, memoir, novel chapters -- work that can only benefit from slow thought, and could be harmed by reckless speed.

I generally heave a sigh, and then sometimes I wait a few hours -- hopefully that's long enough for the writer to have second thoughts about how quickly he/she sent it back -- and then, before I even open the attachment, email to say, "Are you sure you don't want more time to work on this?"

And, what should you do while you're taking time between revisions?  While your writer's brain is both working and not-working on the problems in that piece? That's easy. Read. Write something else. Or, go fishing.

What's the rush?

Read the rest of the Stuff My Writing Students Say series

Photo: Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr Creative Commons

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