Three Principles of Revision

Revision. Love it or hate it, I don’t care. Just make sure you do it. Revising is the difference between casual and professional writers.

Note: I consider professional writers not as people who get paid for writing (I’m a poet after all), but rather people who are working at certain level with a certain amount of experience and education, whether formal or self-administered.

Macro Before Micro

You know what this means. Don’t rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Don’t spend two hours moving a few words around in a paragraph that you are going to delete later. Make sure you’ve said mostly the right things in mostly the right order before you polish that prose to a high sheen.

Note: This does not apply to poetry quite as much. In poetry, micro is often macro.

Know Thyself

If you’re a writer with a certain amount of education (formal or self-administered) and experience, then you have a general idea about your strengths and weaknesses. My poetry buddies used to make fun of me (affectionately) for the “Goldstein leap” where I would have a carefully constructed poem and then a reckless leap for the ending. I never had the penultimate line, and I often needed it. As a result, I always check for the Goldstein leap at the end of the poem.

When I teach, I make my writing students make up their own revision checklist. This is great for catching the small things you always forget (passive voice, repetitive sentence structure, citation arcana) as well as bigger issues. Although many students would have the some of the same items on their list, each one was slightly different. You have your own sets of strengths and weaknesses. Work to support one and address the others.

Don’t forget your strengths too! Are you good at titles? Do you write killer dialogue? Are your descriptions to die for? Do you write your references perfectly every single time? (If so, you should consider a career in copyediting.) Listing your writing strengths is a good exercise for reminding yourself the things you do well.

Kill Your Darlings

Nothing against your darlings! They are beautifully worded, delectable sentences, words, paragraphs, and image. But just because you love them does not mean they fit in your current work. Take them out and save them for later. Every poet I know has a list of images or lines that they periodically try to put into a poor unsuspecting poem. Is it a possum, brick dust, or the fact that sparrows can sense magnetism? Think carefully about what is good for your specific work, rather than just what is good.

What are your favorite revision tips? What are your darlings?

Submit or Die in Obscurity

How To Build Writerly Resilience

I’ve been reading Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer over the past few weeks. It is a smart book about all the nonwriting stuff that goes into having a writing career, however we may define it. And one quote has stuck with me particularly.

“Resilience in the face of rejection and disappointment is perhaps the biggest key to success [in writing].”

In my early twenties, I was lucky enough to be roommates with a writer. She was older and a great deal more experienced than me, however she took my beginning writerly ambitions and my poems seriously. I submitted my first poems to a literary magazine, and when I was sent a rejection form she said to me, “Congratulations! You are a real writer now!”

How does a writer become resilient even without having a good writer roommate?

Become a reader for a literary journal. The slush pile is mighty. As you read submissions, you will quickly see that all good writing does not get immediately published and that rejection is not personal. You might like something, but another reader doesn’t. I once rejected a poem from my small grad school literary journal that I read years later in Poetry.

Terri Lynn Coop says it better (scroll down to the comments).

Submit a lot. Make a routine for submission. Do your research, but don’t pin your hopes on an individual journal, grant, agent, or contest. The more you submit, the more you will be rejected, but also the more you will be accepted. The year I decided to submit to three places a week was my best year of publications ever, even if I didn’t manage to do it all year. As soon as you get rejected, send the work out again.

Make sure your submissions are good (not to mention typo free) before you send them out the first time and do not reread them before submitting after that. Feel the self-doubt and submit it anyway.

Find a sense of self-worth elsewhere. I don’t know how to tell you to do that really, but find a hobby that brings you pleasure and people that support you. This is very important.

Stay off social media. Sometimes you’re going to feel like shit even if you are a resilient person. Sometimes you’re going to feel like everyone but you has a book, a prize, the best spouse ever, perfect children, a clean home, and a new kitten. Get off social media and find the hobbies and people and books that sustain you.

When you can’t write, read something good.

How do you find the courage to submit another day?