February 17, 2003

I hate to revise. 

If I were a good writer, I’d get it right the first time.

If I were really talented, my writing would emerge fully-formed; no messy chrysalis but a perfect butterfly. An engaging lead, logical transitions that lead the reader, a resonant ending. A home run on the first pitch. 

If I have to rewrite my story it means one thing: I’ve failed.

For a long time, that’s how I felt about my writing. 

But over the years, I’ve had a change of heart. 

It’s been a slow process, one influenced by the wisdom of good writers whose very different attitudes have taught me to see revision in a fresh light. 

Don Murray, my mentor and friend, has taught me that “revision is not punishment… writing evolves from a sequence of drafts, each one teaching the writer how to write the next one.”

In “Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers,” Murray assembles a chorus raised in support of what he calls “the pleasure of revision.”

A sampling:

“I love the flowers of afterthought.” –Bernard Malamud

“I’ve done as many as 20 or 30 drafts of a story. Never less than 10 or 12 drafts.” –Raymond Carver

 “When I see a paragraph shrinking under my eyes like a strip of bacon in a skillet, I know I’m on the right track.” –Peter DeVries

The best part of all, the absolutely most delicious part, is finishing it and then doing it over … I rewrite a lot, over and over again, so that it looks like I never did.” –Toni Morrison

Admittedly, these are novelists, poets and short story writers, not reporters under the gun of deadline.

But there’s another quote that may represent the most compelling argument for revision. It was a piece of advice that the editor of the Wall Street Journal gave to a new editor toiling away one night on a story.

“Remember,” Barney Kilgore told Michael Gartner, “the easiest thing for the reader to do is to quit reading.”

Years later, when Gartner was named editor of the Des Moines Register, he had cards printed with that sentence and gave them out to everyone in the newsroom.

Unfortunately, most newswriting is the product of a first draft culture.

Reporters spend most of their time reporting and then as the clock ticks, start banging away at the keys.

Of the time spent actually writing (as opposed to drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, pacing, hair-pulling and other writing tics) the majority is spent crafting a perfect lead, and then as the sand rapidly falls through the hourglass, the remaining minutes are a desperate rush towards a destination, usually a quote that seems to strike a concluding note.

Revision? Heck, I’m just trying to get the thing written. And if I turn it in late enough, the desk can’t tamper with my copy.

Sometimes there isn’t time for anything but a first draft. But just because journalism is “the first rough draft of history” that shouldn’t give writers — and their editors — an excuse to publish their first drafts every time.
Just because journalism is “the first rough draft of history” that shouldn’t give writers — and their editors — an excuse to publish their first drafts every time.Until writers and editors overcome our almost institutional resistance to revision, until we start seeing revision as a chance to improve rather than a sign of failure, readers will continue to find it easy to quit reading. (If you doubt it, ask yourself how many stories in your paper you read to the end.)

The biggest problem with revising is not the words, it’s the attitude.

Faced with a draft, I know I often become a truculent child who stamps his foot and insists, “But this is good enough.”

I don’t want to do it over again, especially if I’m convinced this is the best I’m capable of. I don’t want to have to check the hundreds of things that need checking from the accuracy of the piece to the grammar, spelling and that elusive quality that is a writer’s style.

So I’ve learned to trick myself.

Just like a parent prods a stubborn toddler into eating green beans by pretending the baby’s mouth is an airplane hangar, I try to devise subterfuges. These are often mechanical steps that I hope will have the effect of giving me the distance I need to see a draft with fresh eyes and make the changes needed to keep my reader reading.

Here’s a list of strategies to become a better writer by becoming a reviser. It’s augmented by a collection of advice offered from the editorial writers and columnists who participated in Poynter’s Persuasive Writing seminar earlier this month:

1. Write earlier. This teaches you what you already know and what you need to know. When I begged for more time on a story it was usually because I felt I needed more time to report, to understand the subject. “I need a couple more hours/days/weeks,” I’d tell my editor. When I started drafting earlier, I began to see that the hole I needed to fill was already complete, but there are other gaps I wouldn’t have recognized as quickly.

Revision doesn’t mean more time, but rescheduling the time you have. Let’s face it. Whatever time we have for a story most of us spend the bulk of reporting. After all, we’re reporters. But there are ways to build in revision earlier in the process.

2. Hit the print button as early as possible. Computers are wonderful, but they give the illusion of perfection. To revise this column, I made a printout of the first draft, approximately 1,000 words written in less than an hour over two days. I began by crossing things out, penning in questions, examining the prose (which sentences held up, which need re-tooling, etc.)

3. Put it away. John Fowles, the British novelist (“French Lieutenant’s Woman), described drafting as much as 60,000 words and then putting them in a desk drawer for a few months. Nice work, I can hear the journalists out there muttering, if you can get it.

Few working writers, especially those under daily or even weekly deadlines, have that freedom. But any attempt to put a story out of your mind will give your unconscious mind the chance to work on it.

As a Washington correspondent, there were days when the time between assignment and deadline was less than 4 to 5 hours. Even so, I tried to leave myself 10-15 minutes before deadline to print out the story, stick the printout in my back pocket and head out of the National Press Building for a quick walk.

I did my best not to think of my story, instead focusing my attention on the weather and the parade of lobbyists and tourists. Despite the distractions, by the time I made it two blocks to the Civil War monument in front of the U.S. Treasury building fresh questions about the story in my pocket began popping up like the tulips in front of the White House.

Had I really supported my lead? Should I move that quote higher up? Would that fact buried in the middle of the story make a more resonant ending? Did I need to make a quick call to check a fact or get one more piece of persuasive evidence? What could be discarded, what needed fleshing out?

4. Break revision into manageable tasks. Sometimes the sheer enormity of revisions overwhelms me. Make separate printouts — one for names and titles, another for verb constructions, a third to trim the fat from quotes.

5. Read aloud. Listen to your story and you can hear where it flags, where a quote runs on or echoes the previous phrase (The mayor said he’s dissatisfied with the council’s action. “I’m just not satisfied,” Mayor Naughton said).

6. Diagnose, then treat. As you read, make quick notes (“cut,” “move up?” “boring?” “stronger evidence?”) Then go back and make the necessary changes.

7. Test your story against your focus. If it’s about a young woman’s fight against cerebral palsy, why does it begin with an anecdote about her grandfather’s experiences in the California gold rush?

8. Find a first reader. Editors are our first readers–and our last line of defense. Show your draft to an editor–or a colleague. Ask them to tell you what works and what needs work. Ask for a movie of their reading. Better to turn in something to an editor that we know isn’t perfect with an eye to finding the promise and the pitfalls in it and the path to a clear, concise, readable story than letting the whole world see our mistakes.

9. Develop patience. When I begin to write, the ideas often flow in a flood, leaving the landscape obscured by mountains of impenetrable mass, uprooted trees, houses and everything else in its path. Instead of a tidy piece of prose, what I have is a mess that makes my spirits droop. I wanted it to be so good and instead it seems so bad that I fear I can never get it to  the point where anybody else would want to read it. I have to keep telling myself it will come if I keep at it.

There’s no shortage of techniques for revision as the accompanying list of ideas offered by a group of editorial writers and columnists proves.  What I think I need most is the right attitude towards that stage of the writing. I need patience, acceptance and faith. Patience to be willing to make the effort to work on the writing, to accept the flaws in the first draft because it contains the promise of the final one. Acceptance to see that what I write is what I’m capable of writing at that moment. Faith that if I work hard enough I can make the writing better.

What’s your favorite revision strategy?

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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