Everyone’s Output Benefits from a Thorough Working Over

Note: To listen to audio of this post, please use the widget below or visit my Soundcloud page.

Back in July, I penned an article entitled “The Pen-and-Paper Remedy: One Parent’s Screen Solution” for Story Warren, a creative-parenting site. It’s something of a personal narrative about how I tried to woo my seven year old away from video games by introducing him to pen-and-paper roleplaying. (What can I say? We’re a family of unrepentant nerds.) Read the whole thing yourself if you’d like, but know that I don’t want to discuss the subject material itself per se. Rather, I want to talk about the process of actually writing it.

Writing is such a variable process. Some days words seem to simply sluice from your pen in a Niagara-like geyser. Other days it’s as though you’re chipping away at a hunk of granite. With a piece of celery. In the dark. But no matter how self-assured you may feel, good writing rarely makes its way to directly from the author to the reader in its virgin form. It needs to be pruned, trained, and shaped into something straight and true—no matter how you feel about it the first time around. Just look at what I did to “The Pen-and-Paper Remedy” in moving it from first to second draft:

Understand that I was pretty proud of this article from the get go. It had an interesting hook, some nice illustrations, and decent organization. But a few examples sprawled well beyond the space required to get the basic point across. Some appropriately pithy sections lacked any sort of stylistic punch. A quote from an expert in pop culture ended up seeming entirely extraneous. In the end, it all translated into the same process—excise, revise, rework.

The problem is that most of us don’t expect writing to function this way. We think our words will spring from us like Athena leapt from Zeus’ forehead, mature and unblemished. Yet that rarely happens. In her humorous writing manual Bird By Bird, the inimitable Anne Lamott explains that …

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself.” We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time.

On a related note, Robert Boynton’s The New New Journalism reports how journalist Richard Ben Cramer once happened upon famed author Tom Wolfe as “he was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities in biweekly installments … and I looked in his eyes and saw the haunted, hunted animal look … And I thought to myself, ‘God bless you, Tom. You’re a working stiff after all.’”

The takeaway is this: Whether it’s an email or an epistle, a pamphlet or a poem, back-cover copy or a full-fledged book, you’re going to need to beat it up yourself or hire a professional to do so. In fact, if you see the need yet have a hard time letting go of your own prose, the latter option might prove the most useful. But understand this: Everyone’s output benefits from a thorough working over.