Editing Challenge Day 1: The Editing Myth

This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It might be one of the most pervasive and damaging myths circulating among fledgling writers: that the truly talented writers, the ones we see popping up in the pages of literary magazines or gracing the New Fiction tables of bookstores, got it right on the first try. We think that great writing came from the sky, or from the minds of genius; that Hemingway, Carver, Munro, wrote their stories more or less in one draft. Kind of like Michelangelo imagining the sculpture within the block of marble, and removing anything that wasn’t sculpture. It’s even in professional writers’ interest to perpetuate this myth, and in interviews and discussions they will often keep the myth going, talking about writing the book in a number of weeks or making few changes from the original.

I’m here to tell you that almost all of that is, as my mother would say, horse-puckey.

When writers are truly honest, they start talking about their seventh or seventeenth drafts. They talk about how the prize-winning novel had to be completely re-written from scratch. Multiple times. Hemingway wrote somewhere near forty-five different endings for A Farewell to Arms. The editor Gordon Lish cut nearly 90% of Raymond Carver’s original draft of his story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” You can find the original online and do a side-by-side comparison; whole backstories and character arcs have been excised. It’s a slash-and-burn job, and it resulted in one of the most successful short stories of the past forty years.

So I think this is where we have to begin, if we are really going to take our editing journey seriously; we have to acknowledge and know that revision is a necessary part of the writing process; it cannot be skipped or jettisoned, even by the greatest of the great among us. I have yet to find an exception to this rule. Even the writers we think of as truly intuitive geniuses, such as Nabokov, have rounds of revision. Nabokov wrote all of his books in isolated paragraph-sized chunks on notecards; a major part of his writing process was spent shuffling the cards into the appropriate order.

So. Inspiration versus perspiration? You know the old adage. But as I’ll talk about more in future posts, it’s a mistake to think of revision as only perspiration. It, too, is an intensely creative process, requiring thought and intuition and boldness. And when you embark on that journey, you’ll be walking well-trodden ground. Take heart: every book you see in a bookstore, every classic on your shelf, had to undergo this process. No one gets it perfectly on the first try.

Next time: tackling your draft with a fresh perspective.

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