It occurred to me this weekend that there really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision. Few of us writers like to admit it, but if we write works longer than a postcard, we all inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?
Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone bitch about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.
We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.
(My boyfriend has just informed me that I have that look in my eyes now, and that my dinner is getting cold.)
Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t always stick around, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry, wondering if they are ever going to come back?
Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. As I recall from the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself.) Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help. Best to stay on her good side.
I have not been treating her with much respect lately, I’ll admit: I was more or less ordered by my editor to add a preface to my memoir, as well as making some minor revisions, and I was dragging my feet terribly about it. I just couldn’t make myself get started, and truth compels me to say that I often took Ataraxia’s name in vain. How tedious, I thought, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on the project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it. Hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn. The thrill is in the creation, not in the perfection.
Fortunately, after a couple of weeks of dodging Ataraxia’s dicta, I started listening to what I was saying about why I didn’t want to do the revision. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad. It wasn’t that I felt compelled, or that I thought the changes would be bad for the book. No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears.
Am I alone in this?
It was then that Ataraxia whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways. I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my editor’s suggestions in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?
For those of you who have not yet edited a book or other major work of your own, this may sound impractical, as if I am suggesting that the revision process should entail rewriting the entire manuscript, or as if I am merely using the Day of the Dead to resurrect that tired old writing-class advice, kill your darlings. I am advising neither. What I am suggesting is that instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.
What I am suggesting, in fact, is moving beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.
The next time you find yourself in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time. No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.
Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Get your eyes off the printed word for awhile.
And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?
What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.
Incidentally, I finished the preface and revised the requested sections, and I’m pretty proud of the result. To tell you the truth, I think it’s a better book now — a tough thing to admit, after having kicked and screamed about these changes for quite some time. Ataraxia teaches us humility, I guess.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini