Taking Stock of Your Revisions

Derrick Neese, Writing Consultant

I have made chicken stock more times than I can count. Four times a week over the course of a fifteen-year culinary career really adds up. There is a large pot of stock simmering on my stove as I write this, a weekly ritual I cannot abandon despite trading my chef knife for a pen four years ago. And while I want to talk about a few generalizable revision tips today, I am reminded how all those years of cooking have informed my writing process, so let’s start by discussing the perfect batch of broth.

            I started making stock eighteen year ago. Back then, I aimed for excellence, mirroring my mentor’s movements, seeing how he chopped the culinary trinity of mirepoix—two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery—breathing in the aromatic cauldron of rosemary and thyme while I learned from the best. The six-hour repetition of producing liquid gold became my obsession, and by the hundredth pot I foolishly thought I had attained a mastery. After five hundred, I realized I was only scratching the surface. Like with any craft, there was a wealth of nuance and depth I’d never even considered. I began reevaluating details, trying to notice every modifiable aspect of the process. Was I roasting the bones too long or not long enough? Should I have blanched them? Why did I put the parsley in so early? I also started reading books by great chefs like Escoffier, Child, and Keller, taking in the identical elements of their methods and blending them with my own. Each subsequent attempt became a chance to learn and improve, with every minor modification written down. The herb infused pot bubbling in my kitchen is a result of those efforts. Is it the perfect batch? No. After all that effort, I learned perfection isn’t the point. Discovering my own process is what has mattered most.

            I started writing stories the week I turned thirty. While it was a tough transition at first, the more I wrote and revised, the more I realized those culinary lessons could translate to my writing. Just like with my stock, it was all about figuring out my own style. I found that I write my best stories in the morning, and that if I’m excited about an idea, the story tells itself. I trained my creativity by reading greats like Baldwin, Bradbury, and Vonnegut, taking the best ingredients from their styles and whisking them into my own. But most of all, like with the daily process of improvement I had picked up in the kitchen, I figured out how my writing ticked from the iterative act of revision.

            One of the biggest questions I get when consulting with creative writers in the UofL Writing Center is: How do I know if I’m going in the right direction? The only answer I’ve found, as simple as it sounds, is that we all learn best through thorough revision. And although every writer is different, here are some basic revision principles to help any writer find what works for them, my own culinary trinity of noticing, asking why, and putting it away.

            #1 Notice: A critical aspect of revision, from beginning to end, is noticing the choices we make and turning them into a list. I mean this in the simplest of terms: Read your draft and mark down any line and or that doesn’t feel quite right. Try rereading the piece faster and see what happens. Does the feeling go away? If it doesn’t, you have isolated a concern. The key to finding successful revision strategies comes from learning to notice the peculiar aspects of your own writing, turning those thoughts into a list, and adding to the list when you see something new. Sound simple? That’s because it is. The repetition of noticing is one of the most essential tools in a writer’s kit.

            # 2 Ask why: To make the best stock I could, I questioned every aspect of the process, from how large I cut my vegetables, down to what kind of strainer I used to obtain the final product. The same goes for my writing. Why did I start with a long sentence in the second paragraph of this blog? What’s with the whole ‘culinary trinity’ thing? Is it cheesy? Probably. With your newfound noticed list in hand, critically question your own process. Write those questions down as they appear and keep reading. Oftentimes, an answer will arrive unannounced moments later and resolve an entire paragraph of concerns. Even when you think you have found that magical solution, ask why and when and where. Never stop questioning, because the more you do, the more you will notice about your process, resulting in a deliberate approach.

            #3 Put it away. After reading a draft a dozen times, you might start feeling stuck. Put the piece away and let your thoughts simmer. I’ve struggled with individual scenes from a story for weeks, eventually tossing the draft aside in frustration, only to stew on the idea and find a fully cooked solution when I least expected it. You never know when an idea will appear, but it is vital to trust that it will. This also goes for unused scraps. If you notice a sentence or paragraph isn’t working, paste it to a new document or scrap of paper and forget about it. I’ve had scraps from one story save a scene in another after weeks of failed solutions. Those opportunities disappear when you delete bad lines. So put it away for a while and know that the answer will come, even if it doesn’t happen today.

            The toughest part of writing is figuring out the fine details of our process. There are no quick workarounds to that. To find those answers, we must become vigilant noticers, examining every aspect of our writing, and organizing strategies around what we consistently see. There will never be a perfect recipe for chicken stock or immaculate revision strategy, but by surrounding our processes with attention, we have the chance to make them wonderfully ours.

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