The secret to being a better writer? Re-read your own work
I just wrote an essay for Signature that frames revision as an act, not just of writing, but of reading. The occasion was the publication of my new book "The Art of X-ray Reading," from which I drew my experience of re-reading "The Great Gatsby." I described how seven readings of the book over almost 50 years revealed new things to me, not just about life, love or America, but also about the craft of writing.
That led me to this brief reflection: Why don’t we treat our own writing that way? Why don’t we go back and read our own work — the stuff that is now old and cold — and see what it teaches us? I am about to do that now with my book "Writing Tools" for a new 10th anniversary edition.
Here is the first paragraph of the introduction:
“Americans do not write for many reasons. One big reason is the writer’s struggle. Too many writers talk and act as if writing were slow torture, a form of procreation without arousal and romance — all dilation and contraction, grunting and pushing. As New York sports writer Red Smith once observed, ‘Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.’ The agony in Madison Square Garden.”
So what do I think of those words now?
There is advice about revision that goes like this: The more time between drafting and revision, the more clear-eyed your decisions will be. When the text is hot, or at least still warm, the cook (the writer) is too attached to it. Even a 10-minute break — an hour is better — allows the draft to cool off. Suddenly you begin to see the text the way a reader sees it, its strengths and its flaws.
If an hour is better, what about a day, a month, a year, 10 years?
I have almost no memory of writing those sentences at the top of "Writing Tools." I read them now with an appreciation for some of my old moves and a desire to revise some others.
I stick with the first two sentences: “Americans do not write for many reasons. One big reason is the writer’s struggle.” The short sentence has the ring of truth. Two short sentences are like a one-two combination for a boxer, magnifying the effect.
I now have my doubts about that next sentence, the extended comparison of delivering a story to delivering a baby. Only one reader has complained about it, a woman who thought that I didn’t know enough about childbirth to render with credibility words like “dilation” and “contraction.” I take her point. If I had another shot, I might cut that sentence or look for another metaphor.
I’ve argued that all writers need backup singers — our Pips — and one way to get them is through quoting other voices. I like having Red Smith crooning behind me. His sanguinary (not sanguine) metaphor about the pains of writing — opening a vein — may have been quoted too often. If so, I think I redeem it with the play on “the agony in the garden,” a religious reference that I turn into a sports writing reference.
Some might find that tweak inappropriate or even offensive. After all, it was Jesus who agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane in anticipation of his death. But Red Smith was a Notre Dame grad, and the image from that campus of Jesus with his arms raised is widely referred to as Touchdown Jesus, so there you go.
This reconsideration of my own work has suddenly become fun for me. I am enjoying my own accomplishments with only the occasional cringe. If you decide to pick up some examples of your old work, try asking these questions:
- What surprises me most about these texts?
- What writing moves seem to work the best?
- What would I now change if I had the chance?
- What do I know now about the craft (or life) that would lead me to a different revision?
- What does the voice of that writer from ten years ago sound like?
- Do I sound different now?
- If so, which voice sounds the most authentic?