Searching for What I’m Saying: On Revision

Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.

— John Updike

aqua typewriter vintageI’m up to my eyes in query letters. I’ve had a few requests for the manuscript, so it’s out there with some peepers on it as well. It’s very exciting when I get those requests, and every time it happens I spend 24 mostly happily frenzied hours combing through the manuscript and making tweaks. The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, which weighed in at 84,000 words when I sent it to my first round of readers back in October, is just 78,000 now. Fighting weight I hope. Scrappy and trim.

This means some agents have seen earlier versions of the work. I worry sometimes, whether I should have revised and revised for another six months or a year before sending it out at all, but even back in October every essay in the collection had been through an average nine or ten revisions. It took almost four years to write the book. It felt like high time to send it into the world.

I have loved working with editors on the essays I’ve had published. I love the challenge of a reader saying, this isn’t working for me. I love figuring out the best way to say what I want to say. I love choosing words, chopping sentences and moving things around. In this last round, I worried I was going too far with the pruning. The maxim is murder your darlings. But sometimes it gets tricky to know when to leave things alone. Nick Hornby poked fun at overzealous austerity when it comes to revision:

Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words—I’m sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that?…Go on, young writers—treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won’t mind.

So I’m trying to find the balance. Putting aside the pressure of wanting to sell this book, the revision process is engaging—even exhilarating at times.

Neil Gaiman said this smart thing: “If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer.” That’s how I work: I read, sometimes out loud. I mark up the manuscript. Then I go back and try to figure out how to fix what isn’t working. There’s one essay in The Saltwater Twin, “Meteors,” which every reader has felt was the least satisfying in the collection. That’s not a one-off—that’s like six or seven people. But when I read the piece to myself, I love it. So I know there must be connections I’m making that my readers don’t have access to because those connections are still in my brain. They haven’t appeared in text. I need to identify what they are—what’s making the writing richer for me—so I can bring them into being—those images, anecdotes, reflections—so other readers’ experience will be more in line with mine.

At an art gallery recently, I stood in front of a grandly poetic piece made of meticulously cut out paper and I had the thought that I could never make work like that because it was so intricate and delicate and it looked horribly tedious. But on the heels of that thought was the realization that I will change a word twenty-five times until it’s the right word in the right spot and I won’t be bored at all. I like the rigor of revision. I like the internal click I feel when a piece is done to my satisfaction. I love it when I at last I find what I am saying.

How about you? What is your revision process like? In writing? Art? Life?

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photo by Tarja Ollas on pixabay


12 thoughts on “Searching for What I’m Saying: On Revision

  1. I love this post, especially because I’m revising some chapters of my own right now, and I find the same thing – that I can spend half an hour obsessing over one sentence, and if and when I finally get it right, it’s incredibly satisfying. Even more so when the same could be said of an entire chapter. And yet, if you then leave those pages alone and return to them later, you will inevitably find more to revise; it could go on forever because your perspective and what you want to say is constantly changing, or at least that’s how I view it. Difficult but so valuable to occasionally just leave well enough alone and decide to go ahead and share!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! Sometimes coming back to it, I’m like, wait, what? And it’s funny how sometimes I don’t even remember putting certain phrases/words together and I’ll think, oh, that was a good one. Nice work.


  2. Thanks for the story here. I applaud your diligence. The only thing I will add at the moment is that “kill your darlings” approach is often overused or misused. Too many times, readers and editors use this as an expedient way of commenting instead of saying something more useful.


    1. Agreed. And the killing part of it is so dramatic. But having the distance to be able to cut where it will make the work stronger is so key!


  3. Thanks for sharing your revision process. It’s always so interesting to hear how other writers respond to this challenge. I loved you quotations too. The Hornby one spoke loudest.

    I’m very close to where you are now in my novel–working on the final revisions before sending out queries. It’s been through three sets of beta readers and countless revisions. Revision has been a joy, as you say, getting closer and closer to what I really want to say, seeing it more and more clearly. Trimming away all the excess, honing it to its essence. I’m not sure I agree with the maxim of “killing your darlings.” I think the problem with that is that every line should be a “darling,” too exquisite, too perfect, to change. In my own reading of others’ work, I look for those darlings–sentences that make me purr. If the work has too few, or none, I lose interest.

    On the other hand, revision can also be a torment. If I try to put too much distance between me and the work, read it as if I was a detached, critical reader, I do want to murder it. I become a stalker, a slasher, a hater, wanting to eliminate every word. So, yes, finding that balance is crucial. The reader, too, has to want to be carried away by our words. We have to write in a way that makes them want to trust us to give them what they are seeking. What are they seeking, what are we seeking, when we read and write? That is the most crucial question.

    Wishing you every success in this writing adventure.


    1. I love an exquisite sentence as much as the next gal. But sometimes I find as exquisite as a sentence may be, it may not be serving the paragraph or piece as a whole and has to go. I don’t kill them. They go into another document, to reappear who knows when??


  4. I am like you. I read my chapters out loud to myself. I have some writer friends who read what I write and offer critique and that is critical to my process. Those fresh, unbiased eyes, especially on those chapters that I’ve written and rewritten a dozen plus times.

    But yeah, it’s awesome that you are getting manuscript requests. Keep at it. I am looking forward to the post in which you announce your book deal.


    1. Thank you for the encouragement! Those friends/colleagues who can give good feedback must be loved on and plied with bounteous food and drink.


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