In 1999 I was a proofreader at one of the big five accounting firms (hello, Ernst & Young). It was a lowly job, but life among the big five in those days was pretty cushy. I had a desk in the creative services department, smack at the center of the city, with a tenth-floor picture-glass-window view of downtown, a computer and internet access, free rein in the supplies closet and no-questions-asked use of the copy and binding center. It was practically heaven for a young writer.
My office was on the tenth floor of the building in the foreground on the right.
Unfortunately, to pay my ticket into this heaven, I spent most of my time reading financial documents, checking the math and the grammar, and marking documents up as I went. It was dull work, but there was another perk that was worth it all: Budget for career and skills training. When I wanted to take a class or go to a conference, all I had to do was make a business case for how it was relevant to my role, and as long as the total cost was under my yearly allowance for development, I could go, all expenses paid.
So of course, when the company offered a business writing course at the NYC headquarters, I signed right up. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was one of the best things I ever did for my career as a writer.
Somehow, in 12 years of public school, 4 years of private college, and 3 years of graduate school, and all the associated thousands of pages of required writing, nobody had ever taught me the simple and incredibly powerful principles I learned in that class–principles that apply as thoroughly to novel writing as they did to the business correspondence and deliverables we were practicing with at the time.
But wait, there’s more!
Sure, I’d had some good writing teachers. The one who encouraged me to keep working on that novel I started in 2nd year of middle school (sixth grade) in England, long after the rest of the class had finished that assignment and moved on to something else (Mrs. MacDougal. And YES she was just like McGonagall except half as tall and twice as strict).
That's me on the left. Just kidding. But I did wear a red sweater just like that, and I loved that school so very much.
The high school English teacher who taught me how to write in paragraphs (it’s true, I didn’t know what a paragraph was until that year–the glories of a nomad lifestyle–you miss some of the stuff everyone else takes for granted).
This was a terrible school even then, and the biggest regret of my childhood is that I had to graduate here, out of the three high schools I attended. There was that one good English teacher, though. Thanks, Mrs. Dodd.
The college professor who taught me how to think, really think and pull a hundred threads together to a tight and meaningful conclusion.
Top floor, third from the left, tiny little window poking out from rooftop: That was his office.
My mom (hi mom), who always believed in me and read everything I ever wrote (I don’t think she can keep up any more–sorry,mom). She still reads everything I ask her to read.
[No pics of mom on my computer at present. Hm. Where are they all?]
But somehow in all that, nor in 3 years of grad school at U of Iowa (to be fair, I studied classics there, you know, Greek and Latin, so maybe they weren’t all that concerned about my writing process) no one ever taught me a process for getting from idea to finished product. Every teacher I’d ever had taught me what to do, what the finished product should look like, but I had to figure out how to get it there myself.
It turns out I’m not alone in that. I’ve begun giving writing lessons to a young friend (in exchange for childcare: win-win), a high schooler who has had many writing teachers previously. After our first lesson, in which I showed him some of the secrets I learned from that business writing teacher (plus 12 years of self-study), and guided him through a practice session, he sat back with a look of relief and said, “This makes so much sense. I don’t feel so overwhelmed. Now when I sit down to write, I know what to do.”
And it’s clear to me from many, many conversations with adult writers that they feel the same way. Even those who are successful often can’t explain their process, because they’re winging it. Nobody ever taught them how to do it, they just figured out enough to work and they run with it. It’s pretty amazing, if you think about it–writers are brilliant folk. Still, wouldn’t it be nice to wing it just a little less?
So what is this amazing thing I learned, that frees young writers and old alike to really soar? What would you pay to know? Would you pay fifteen hundred dollars? What if I told you it was only $19.99 for three months?
I’ll tell you.
It’s quite simple, actually. Well, okay, no it’s not. Because there are lots of pieces to it. But I will tell you the skeleton. And you’re going to roll your eyes because you’ve seen this skeleton before and you think it’s kind of trite. But I tell you, from the way they talk, very very few writers are actually working this system. And the thing about the system is, it works.
Here’s the system:
Step One: Prewrite. This includes activities such as outlining, sketching, mind mapping, brainstorming, and drinking yourself into a stupor in front of a computer to see what comes out of your fingertips. In the work with my young friend this week, we practiced brainstorming and then narrowing his ideas to three main points, with specific strategies for doing that. We did not practice with alcohol. Stop calling the police on me.
Step Two: Draft. This is the shitty first draft stage, to use Anne Lamott’s terminology, or SFD. Don’t think too hard. Just get it down. This is where my young student took each of the three main ideas and wrote them out into paragraph form with supporting ideas. For homework, he’s finishing those paragraphs and adding an intro and conclusion.
Stop the presses. You’ve never heard any of this before! It’s like a bold new horizon!
You’ve heard all of this before. Ad nauseam. And maybe–probably–you even do this pretty much ALL. THE. TIME. So shut up, Heather, and get on with it. Here’s the bit that most writers, as far as I can tell, are not doing. They’re not differentiating between the next two steps: Revising and editing in that order.
In our business class, there was a little chart with arrows pointing from one step to the next and these words: “The writing process is recursive: You can always go back, but never skip forward.”
And therein lies the crux. It’s easy to waste time worrying about grammar and style and minor inconsistencies, and miss the big picture. That’s what happens when you leap ahead to editing before you’re done revising.
What? Editing and revising? Isn’t that the same thing?
NO. Step 3: Revising. Step 4: Editing. Do not skip Step 3. Do not move on to Step 4 before Step 3 is done (or as done as you can get it).
Step back. I’m not going to tell anyone what they should do. If you’ve got a system that works for you ROCK ON and hit the fast-forward button. We’re almost done here. Maybe for other writers, stories leap fully-formed from their heads, like Athena, armed and ready to go, just maybe needing a little polish on the shield, a little edge on the sword. For these writers, revising is unnecessary and whether they use the word “revising” or “editing” to describe their post-first-draft-writing is completely irrelevant. It’s just tweaks, anyway.
But for me–and, I suspect, most writers–a first draft is an ugly, half-formed thing, closer to Hephaestus than Athena, and in desperate need of nurture before it is ready to face the world. And by “nurture” I mean, “ripping, tearing, and complete, painful re-organization.”
And that, my friends, is revision. It is not worrying over whether the tenses are correct or even whether the POV is accurate in every paragraph. When we skip ahead to editing (tenses, flow, POV concerns, sentence- and paragraph-level changes) before we’ve got the revisions done, we cheat ourselves of valuable time and energy, or worse–jeopardize the health of our creation, by becoming attached to words and phrases and paragraphs that maybe we don’t even need but how can we let them go once we’ve invested part of our soul in them?
Editing before revising is like trying desperately to save the damaged foot of a patient, working meticulously to reduce scarring and ensure optimal functioning once healing is complete, when the patient has just had her internal organs rearranged by gunfire and is busy hemorrhaging all over the operating table.
So, yeah. That’s one of my big secrets. And I didn’t even charge you for it. You’re welcome.
And, yeah. It’s heavy on my mind because guess what: My novel is hemorrhaging all over the floor and I’m worried about that right now, and not so much whether the grammar is right. Or whether individual chapters are perfectly polished gems. Or, really, anything except getting her guts patched up, rearranged, and functioning appropriately.
Where are you? Are you guilty of conflating editing and revising? What are your favorite tips on how to write? What helps you most in getting revisions done?
P.S. Proofreading is step 5. Last step. Last last last. Don’t you dare put that damn document on the lowly proofreader’s desk until you’ve done your revising and editing. She may be a future professional writer and novelist, but your name is on the by-line, so earn it, okay?