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Re-writing

A reader writes: “You’ve shared that you revise many, many times. Is there an order to that revision?”

It was said (I paraphrase) that Shakespeare’s mind and hand went so well together that there was scarce a blot on his papers. To which Ben Jonson famously replied, “Would he had blotted a thousand!”

I suspect that whereas all writers revise (except maybe Shakespeare) no doubt they do so in their own fashion. Speaking for myself, revision is not merely constant but starts with the first sentence I write. Re-writing is the way I write. It’s my process. Which is to say I don’t think I’m a good writer: I think I’m a decent re-writer.

I will tell students, “If, when you first write something and you think it’s good, you’re in trouble. But when you write something and you think it’s not very good, that’s great. Because now you can write it better. Nobody, nobody, nobody writes anything very good the first time.”

One and done doesn’t do.

Revision is the name of the game.

What guides my revisions more than anything is my reading skills. This is to say I try to follow my mantra: “Writers don’t write writing. They write reading.”

Writers don't write writing. They write reading.

To get the reader to read, to care, to understand, to share the experience depicted in the text is the ultimate goal.

So, there are many things I’m going after: Depth of character, logic of plot, believability, suspense, and energy—to name a few. By re-reading my text—pen in hand—it’s my intuition (as a reader) that mostly guides me. That is, you cannot (I believe) be a good writer without being a good reader.

I do have some mechanical tricks. Sometimes I arbitrarily choose a page number, go to that page and revise. This removes the section from the very things I want over all (see above) and helps refashion sentences, paragraphs, even words.

If I come upon a strong adjective—“horrified”—in my text I check to see if I have used the word in excess. (Hurrah for computer word finders!) When you over use strong words they are much diluted.

Given a full manuscript of X pages in length, I set out to cut say, ten pages, thereby making the book tighter, less verbose.

I will give the book to trusted readers for their critique. That is a massive help in revision.

Reading the work aloud to someone (I always start with my wife) allows me to hear the book’s weaknesses and strengths.

The whole point is not to think of revision as a separate part of writing. Revision is writing.

2 thoughts on “Re-writing”

  1. Dear Avi,

    Since the pandemic struck and emergency distance learning is now taking place, I have opened up a weekly discussions board for my sixth-grade students. Last week’s topic was “Being a Maker” (or, in other words, being productive during quarantine).

    A student of mine posted this:

    I have recently been passionate about writing. I have been writing stories pretty much whenever I can. It’s rewards are making me learn more from my mistakes. Its frustrations is writing can be hard sometimes with coming up with ideas or making the story sound interesting for the viewers to read. I also find it very relaxing and it calms me down whenever I am stressed. Being able to use your imagination and express your words on paper allows me to feel like I am in another world.

    And my response:

    The fact that you are concerned about “making the story sound interesting for the viewers to read” means you are truly writing for readers.

    Remember Avi’s advice?

    “Write for readers. Maybe you understand what you have written, but the writer’s job is to have the reader understand it. Keep in mind: writers don’t write writing, they write reading.”

  2. Dear Avi,
    I do hope that you are well and safe.

    I must say that your blog posts have inspired a number of children that I teach (in Scotland). One child in particular has benefited hugely from your posts and now writes with direction and purpose which have each been inspired by your writing and blog entries. Some of your quotes are hugely thought provoking for him (and me).

    Can I please ask if it would be possible for us to arrange a Skype call/conference with you? I have E-mailed your publisher however I am extremely keen to strike whilst the iron is hot here.

    Our academic term will start back in mid-August (hopefully!). Is it possible to work with you to facilitate a writer’s craft workshop to a year group?

    Please do let me know if this is a possibility.

    Many thanks for the inspirational impact you have on our students (both keen and not so keen readers).

    Best wishes.

    Paul Bertolotto
    International School of Aberdeen.

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