The Best Writers Are Actually Merciless Revisers
Publishing a book doesn’t make you a writer. Some people seem to have the idolatrous notion that having your name on a book makes you an expert worth reading. It does neither. Expertise does not lie in the mere printing of words, nor does worthwhile reading. I should know. Each book I’ve had the privilege of writing has proven to me that the only expertise I should strive for is in knowing not to be an expert. And though I love to write, I’m no “writer.” I’m not someone you’d read for a good yarn or to read something said so well you can hardly imagine expressing it any other way or you wonder why you’d never seen it so clearly. That’s a writer.
Perhaps the main reason I consider myself a run-of-the-mill wannabe writer is that I’m lousy at revising and editing my work. I like my own words too much to be ruthless in saying it differently, too much to chuck the first draft and work to the 150th. Laziness never breeds good writing.
That’s why I felt helped, like a man having his shoulder snapped back into place, by “20 Great Writers on the Art of Revision” (HT: @BetweenTwoWorlds). It’s 20 quotes from well-known fiction writers on how they approach writing–well, actually, rewriting. Here are a couple of my favorites:
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard, Newsweek, 1985
“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966
“It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and write it sentence by sentence — no first draft. I can’t write five words but that I can change seven.” — Dorothy Parker, The Paris Review Interview, 1956
“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” — Raymond Chandler
“Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl
“If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” — Neil Gaiman
The lesson: Savage your writing with revisions until all the romance of your original words are replaced with what should be written and only what should be written.
If I did that I’d be a better writer–preacher, too. Y’all pray for me. Revising mercilessly will feel like stabbing pets, but I desperately pray it results in blessings for God’s people.
Note: No pets were harmed in the writing of this post.