The voice that needs to be heeded. And ignored.

After several days of taking care of a very sick little boy, I managed to escape today. The boy safely (if not quite happily) deposited with our childcare provider, I headed to my favorite local coffee shop (FLCS) this morning in a very determined state. I have promised myself that this month I will revise and send out the short story I’ve been working on for two #$%@!! years. I carried a printout of the story in my bag.

Alas, FLCS was crowded with laptop-toting hipsters and an apparent convention of dog walkers this morning, and I had to continue on down the street to the creperie on the corner, which always has tables free. The fact that it’s a creperie whose best dish is French toast may explain the free tables. Or maybe it’s the fact that the coffee costs 30 cents more than FLCS, comes in a smaller cup, isn’t as hot, and doesn’t taste as good. Just a guess.

But I digress. I took my lukewarm coffee to one of the many empty tables and settled in to work on my draft. I recently finished writing the short story, which is a huge milestone. I have been struggling with one pivotal scene for a long, long time and finally managed to just get it down. Complete the story, revise later, is what I told myself.

I have always struggled to revise my work. Revising is the point in the process when I am mostly likely to abandon a piece of writing, to get frustrated and put a piece away for a long time (sometimes years), or to get really, really down on myself and my writing. I have written here before about revision and its pitfalls.

It’s been a while since I spent any time focused on revision, and the time away has not made revision any more fun. I spent much of the morning covering my pages in red ink, crossing out unnecessary sentences, tightening up paragraphs, and trying to improve poor writing. I then spent the entire walk home from the creperie thinking about how the story was awful, it needed so much more work, not ready to send out, maybe never ready to send out, what’s the point, etc. etc.

Wow.

In just a morning, revising decimated my writerly self-confidence. I realized that my many frustrations with revising in the past revolved around similar feelings of self-doubt.

Wow, again.

Turns out, revision is the act of finding fault with your writing (and, hopefully, trying to fix it). Sounds obvious, but when you look at it this way, it’s easy to see how a concentrated effort at finding problems, errors, awkward writing, skips in logic, etc. can result in thinking that you’re not a good writer. The question is, how the heck do you ignore this voice that says, “look, you included all these extraneous sentences! What poor word choice! And you call yourself a writer!”

This is a voice that, unfortunately needs to be heeded as much as it needs to be ignored. Obviously, you’ve got to clean up the piece. But you don’t want to end up revising forever, of falling into the trap of thinking that your work isn’t good enough, ever. How do you find the happy middle ground, where revision occurs but isn’t a debilitating process? How do you know when you’ve revised enough?

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3 thoughts on “The voice that needs to be heeded. And ignored.

  1. This is the million-dollar question! A few lucky souls seem to be three-draft writers, but seemingly endless revision appears the norm for most of us. Revision techniques that have helped me:

    –Make an outline after I’ve written it to see patterns, repetitions.
    –Send it to 1-3 writer friends with specific questions.
    –Read three pieces I admire for different things (language, structure, ease) and go to my piece right after I read each; sometimes I can see areas to go deeper and sentences to clean up.
    –Read it aloud to yourself or someone else.

  2. Reading aloud is one of the final arbiters for me. It’s always where anything really graceless will show up. But the truth is, I have no idea when to stop. When I get bored and want to write something else, probably.

  3. Excellent advice for revising! I also like to read aloud, but it can get tedious with longer pieces. The outline after the fact is an interesting method, one that I don’t think I’ve heard before.

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