Christopher Stuck, Assistant Director of the Virtual Writing Center
Every once in a while, I stumble upon an article about writing that really sparks with my own experience and struggles in getting words on the page and then turning them into something worthwhile. A lot of my writing time is spent worrying about that first reader and how they will react. As such, I struggle with getting the first draft out, caught up in making it finished on the first go. From teaching here at the University of Louisville and at the University of South Carolina before that, plus working with writers in the University Writing Center, I know I’m not alone in this thought process.
We know it’s bad for us to get into the editing while we’re writing. We know nothing is finished on the first try. But we don’t want to show that we don’t quite have it down right to start, either because we don’t want to be embarrassed or because we don’t want to edit. Good enough isn’t good enough, but we want it to be.
Last week, the University Writing Center posted a link to “The Book He Wasn’t Supposed to Write,” an article published in The Atlantic, to our Facebook page and Twitter feed. Written by author and journalist Thomas E. Ricks, the article details his hidden struggles in writing his latest book and the dismay he felt in the editing process.
He worked on the book for three years and when he finally submitted it to his editor, his editor hated it. Ricks says “Partly, I was crushed. But even more, I was puzzled. How could I have been so off in my perception of my manuscript?” Ricks’s book wasn’t a true first draft, but this was the first time he had sent it out for reading. He was sure of the way he had written the manuscript, but “What [Ricks] had sent [his editor] was exactly the book he had told [Ricks] not to write.” Ricks rethought and revised the book heavily, transforming what he already had, the work he had already done, and added a lot of things he had initially discarded. Through revision, it fell into place, and he ended up with a much better book, even in his own opinion.
Ricks concludes his article, “Most art has a public face—music is played, paintings are displayed, plays are enacted, movies are filmed and often watched by groups. Books tend to be more private, from one person’s act of writing to another’s act of reading. Most mysterious of all is the hidden middle stage, the offstage act of editing. Yet sometimes it can make all the difference.” For me, this is much like the work we do here, as students and academics. Even with an audience in mind, whether it’s an editor, a professor, or a specific group of people out there in the world, there feels like mystery in the writing process. No matter how many times we go through it, no matter how practiced and sure of ourselves we get, the private acts of writing and revising tend to stay private.
Even the few of us who truly love to write fret and worry and make writing hard for ourselves. Rethinking and revising your work after getting the raw materials down on the page in a rough or first draft can counteract some of the mystery, making the whole process easier. Be willing to cut, scrap, rethink, reshape, rearrange, and rewrite. It may seem like more writing, but it’s easier writing.
Find that trusted friend or trusted professor and have them help you by reading and commenting on your work (most of us are willing) or come to the University Writing Center and work on it with us (all of us are willing). But most of all, trust yourself to get words on the page and shape it up later. Learn to stop worrying and love the revision.