Revising Your Work: Doug Elwell and Sarah White talk writing craft

Let’s talk about revision. In fact, let me invite you into a dialogue I had recently with Doug Elwell, a frequent contributor to True Stories Well Told. But first…

It’s a fact of the writing life that you will likely spend more time on revising your writing than on writing new first drafts. Publishers say a book typically gets revised seven times between contracting for the manuscript and letting the presses roll. Published writers have told me they have revised a piece seven times on average before submitting it for possible publication. Even I can do that math–fourteen edit passes after that first “vomit draft.”

For some writers, revision is hell. For others it is satisfying work, akin (I imagine) to sculpting or metal-smithing. We remove what is extraneous, shape what is integral, until the final object takes on just the right form, its weight and color and dimensions innately satisfying.

Some writers, like Doug and many other older writers I’ve met, have produced a number of essays or articles. With increasing frequency, their creative pleasure in writing comes from improving on words they put on the page months or years ago. Nothing beats discovering you are a better writer this year than last, no matter what your age.

Doug recently sent me some revisions of pieces previously published on True Stories Well Told, which led to an interesting email exchange. Here are Doug’s thoughts on those revisions.

*   *   *

Sarah,

I retrieved my original and revised versions of Beginnings and Reading the Panama Canal. I matched a couple of paragraphs from each version of both pieces and included a short explanation.

 

Panda today

Beginnings

Original: Example 1

I don’t remember a time when Panda wasn’t a part of my life. He is an Aquarian, but neither of us put much stock in astrology. Comparing Zodiac signs never got either of us very far picking up girls. We are about the same age although he is possibly a few months older than I. But we don’t put much stock in that either. What are a few months one way or another when we have collected so many years?

Revision: Example 1

I don’t remember a time when Panda wasn’t a part of my life. I know he’s an Aquarian, but neither of us put much stock in astrology. Comparing Zodiac signs never got either of us very far picking up girls. We are about the same age.

Original: Example 2

Mother, a registered nurse, sewed his head back on and took an old piece of scrap denim from her rag bag and gave him a new nose. He didn’t look the same, but I loved him anyway.

The lifelong partnership and loyalty had to be acknowledged in revision 2.

Revision: Example 2

Mother, a registered nurse, sewed his head back on and took an old piece of scrap denim from her rag bag and gave him a new nose. He didn’t look the same, but I loved him anyway. No matter what happens, you can’t walk away from your best friend. He wouldn’t do that to me if a dog bit my nose off.

*   *   *

Doug and Mom

Reading the Panama Canal

I have moved toward a more minimalist approach over the years. And yet, there are exceptions. In Reading I expanded the first excerpt in the revision. Because it was fresh, I wasn’t prepared to do so in the original.

Original: Example 1

His stroke rendered him uncharacteristically emotional and by the look in his eyes—a deer in the headlights. I suspect fear of impending death that could sneak up on him at any moment and he would have no control and control was what he was all about.

I had to get rid of the deer in the headlights cliché. Also, since I wrote the original, my thinking about his death and his need for control had matured and I was ready to add some detail I wasn’t ready to add in the original.

Revision: Example 1

His stroke rendered him uncharacteristically emotional and with a fixed look in his eyes—a frozen stare. I suspect it was living in fear of death at any moment that hastened his passing. Knowing him, I’m sure that and the fact he would have no say in the matter if he let nature take its course, kept him awake at night. Because control was what he was about. For as long as he could, he soldiered on and I respected his grit. Then he died—just up and chose his own time and place not leaving it to the whim of another power. On a sparkling April morning before the heat of the day, he dragged his half leg over to a pond a few yards from their place. At the water’s edge, he looked back at his flower beds, then to some geese and ducks paddling toward him (likely expecting some bread crumbs). Instead they took flight at the crack of the .32 caliber round that blew into his temple. He had cheated the dark angel and set his own time and place and left the woman who had devoted her life to him to fend for herself.

Original: Example 2

I went to the kitchen and poured a stiff drink, then went out to the machine shed. It stood about fifty yards south of the house. A large window faced west. It had possibilities.

#1 is too spare. In example 2, I added an old dog. One can never go wrong with an old dog. Or Fitzgerald for that matter.

Revision: Example 2

I mixed a stiff drink, then sat in slanted sunlight while an old dog slept there too. I thought of Scott Fitzgerald’s line—all life is but a process of breaking down. I went out to the machine shed a few yards south of the house. A large window faced west. It had possibilities.

*   *   *

Sarah here again. Notice Doug’s mind at work in the revision process–you might say his left brain is focusing on technicalities like weeding out cliches, while his right brain is focusing on the emotional currents in the pieces, and noticing where the facts may be correct but the TRUTH is not yet adequately captured.

You might even catch Doug fictionalizing–adding a sleeping dog by the machine shed, stating what his father observed even though Doug couldn’t have known, unless he asked, and dead dads tell no tales.

Some people think of revision as the act of cutting. In my first pass or two after a “vomit draft” that is certainly what I focus on–finding where I’ve been needlessly wordy, especially at the beginning of a piece, clearing my throat before finding my voice. But then come the critical review passes–“what’s not here but should be?”–followed by more “remove unnecessary words” passes with a focus on digressions and tangents–maybe there’s another story trying to break free from this one? It’s easy to see how one gets to seven revisions, or even fourteen.

Thanks, Doug, for playing along with me on this! Anybody else want to share their “before-and-after” editing process with readers of True Stories Well Told?

(c) 2018 Doug Elwell and Sarah White

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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4 Responses to Revising Your Work: Doug Elwell and Sarah White talk writing craft

  1. Jean says:

    Hi – Thanks for the post. Can you provide a rough list of the items you recommend reviewing when editing/revising? It looks like here are two from the post:
    1. What’s not here but should be?
    2. Remove unnecessary words

  2. Doug Elwell says:

    Sarah,

    I like what you’ve done with this little exercise. Your added comments are spot on. I hope your readers will get a feel for my, and I think your, approach to revision. It is a very personal thing to hone a piece to separate the wheat from the chaff. The key is knowing what it is one wants to say. In my case that follows the first pass or two or sometimes more in revision before it comes clear. This morning printed a “final” version of a piece I started in 2011. I’ve been at this revision for a couple weeks and at the moment like it. We’ll see in another year or so how well it holds up for me.

  3. Sarah, I so appreciated this post. Doug, your examples of revision provide authentic and meaningful editing illustrations. This post comes at a great time as I am discussing editing with my current workshop participants. I especially appreciated the 7-14 time review as a reality check. I think many people’s impression of editing is of the editor (or author) waving a magic wand and everything magically comes into order. Wish that were true.

    • Doug Elwell says:

      Heidi, I believe everything we write is a work in progress just as we, as writers, are works in progress. All is fluid.
      Best wishes with your workshop and thanks for the comment.
      Doug

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