Triage

I’m a great proponent of the triage method of revising:  Take care of the big problems first and gradually work your way down to the details of language.  This is a great policy—in the abstract.  If there’s such a thing as a time-saver, prioritizing is it.  And generally writers DO pay more attention to word choice, sentence structure, rhythm and sound the closer they get to publication.

But in reality writers, to varying degrees, can’t help but pay attention to language from the start.  On one extreme are writers who must perfect each sentence before continuing to the next.  While this method works for some, I wouldn’t recommend it as it poses far too many opportunities for a new writer to get stuck.  Most of us grow attached to sentences we’ve polished and this attachment interferes with our ability to remain flexible and open-minded.  It’s hard to fundamentally restructure an entire book or to lop off a chapter that took you six months to write when all the sentences are beautiful.

On the other extreme are blessedly sloppy drafters who spew out text, trusting that revision will tighten their prose.  I know writers who, when unable to conjure up the right word, insert asterisks instead.  Preserving the flow of ideas is too important; the right word can arrive later.  When we’re not attached to particular words, it’s easier to play with the large elements that form a work—structure, character, themes, plot, voice…

Most writers fall between these two extremes.  We try to stay loose but can’t help but consider our word choices.  Luckily, language is quirky; just as a strong working title can give direction to a draft, the right word can also unlock material.  An accurate description can reveal to the writer a character’s nature or the truth about a memory.  Precision in word choice can expose new ideas worth exploring. There are benefits to occasionally slowing or even stopping one’s “flow” to deliberate over language.

We don’t always know which words or sentences are worthy of careful construction early on and which are distractions from the hard work of composing.  Only much later will we discover which passages are germane—which is why it’s always wise to keep a repository for cut passages.  Generally, though, staying alert to our motives keeps us on track.  Is a particular quest for accurate language motivated by genuine questions about the content?  If so, our work with language reveals the heartbeat and is worth pursuing early on.  Is our struggle with language about presenting material to the reader?  If so, consider tackling this work later.  Better find the core of your story first and then polish the surface.

Language 1: Triage

I’m a great proponent of the triage method of revising:  Take care of the big problems first and gradually work your way down to the details of language.  In the abstract, this is a great philosophy.  If there’s such a thing as a time-saver, prioritizing like this is it.  And generally writers DO pay more attention to word choice, sentence structure, rhythm and sound the closer they get to publication.

But the truth of the matter is that writers, to varying degrees, can’t help but pay attention to language from the very first draft.  On one extreme are writers who must perfect each sentence before continuing to the next.  While this method works for some, I wouldn’t recommend it, as it poses far too many opportunities for a newer writer to get stuck.  Most of us get attached to sentences we’ve polished, and this attachment interferes with our ability to remain flexible and open-minded about our work.  It’s awfully hard to lop off a chapter that took you six months to write or to fundamentally restructure an entire book when all the sentences are beautiful.

On the other extreme are sloppy drafters who spew out text, trusting that revision will tighten and clean up their prose.  I know writers who, when unable to conjure up the right word, insert asterisks instead.  Preserving the flow of ideas is too important; the right word can always come later.  When we’re not attached to particular words, it’s much easier to play with the larger elements that form a work—structure, character, themes, plot, voice…

Most writers fall between these two extremes.  We try to stay loose but can’t help but consider our word choices.  Luckily, language is quirky.  Just as a strong working title can give direction to a draft, the right word can unlock material rather than the other way around.  An accurate description can reveal a character’s nature to the writer.  Precision in word choice can expose new concepts worth exploring. There are benefits to occasionally slowing or even stopping one’s “flow” to deliberate over language.

The trick is to discern which words or sentences are worthy of careful construction early on and which are distractions from the hard work of composing.  There’s no easy answer.  Generally, though, if we stay alert to our motives we can tell which is which.  Is a particular quest for accurate language motivated by genuine questions about the content?  If so, your work with language helps reveal the heartbeat and is worth pursuing early on.  Is your struggle with language about presenting your material to the reader?  If so, consider tackling this work later.  Better find the core of your story first and then polish the surface.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Beginnings and Endings

The last thing that we find in making a book is to know what we must put first.
–Blaise Pascal

Why do new writers assume they must begin writing at the beginning and end at the end?  Of course this is a silly question.  We read from beginning to end, so this order seems obvious.  And getting the beginning right before moving forward is a time-honored writing technique.  Unfortunately in practice it can seem forced, deadly even, and often causes writers to get mired.

Beginnings are almost always the last part of a story to come together.  If we don’t know what a story is about—it’s heartbeat—until deep into revision, how can we possibly know how to begin that story?  Beginnings must do a terrific amount of work:  They must introduce characters, setting, conflict, the narrator’s voice, and the writer’s emotional stake.  I recommend setting aside the beginning until you know your material well enough to then also know how you want to introduce it to the reader.  Likewise, don’t worry about how a piece will end until late in the writing timeline.

Instead I suggest first writing (and rewriting) those scenes and reflections you find the most compelling.  Use the Ouija board technique:  Where in your project do you feel energy?  Following our curiosity is a good policy; we want to track down mystery; we need to ferret out those places of tears and surprise.  Compelling material makes us want to write.  Our interest helps us prioritize.  When we have nothing to learn from a scene, it’s probably not worth writing.  When we’re highly engaged in a scene, usually we have a stake in its outcome.  Interest level is a gauge we must learn to heed.   Eventually we’ll have a mass of text in which we’re highly invested.  Only then is it valuable to ask, “Where does this story begin?”

At times the story begins with the plot.  In other words, the outer story follows a direct chronology, and we must be faithful to that chronology.  When this happens, revision requires that we order our scenes from the start of action to the end.  At other times, the story begins at the start of an emotional quest.  Say you’re thirty-six, attending your uncle’s funeral, and learn for the first time that your father served in Viet Nam.  Looking back over your life you can see the consequences, but why hasn’t he ever told you?  The quest begins with the funeral but takes you back in time, through history and memory, and forward in time as you confront your dad.  In other words, the emotional hook is your beginning rather than the first event chronologically, and the plot of your story proceeds with that emotional quest.

Stories can also begin with a lyrical moment that conveys the heartbeat or with reflection that highlights the narrative voice in relationship with the subject matter, or they can launch directly into the action.  Regardless, beginnings always introduce what’s at stake.  A reader enters with the question, “So what?” and expects an answer immediately.

Endings, on the other hand, needn’t be conclusive; they needn’t tie up all the loose threads nor land on a definitive answer to your mystery.  They should, however, illuminate movement.  A reader needs to land at a different place from where he or she began.  As Judith Barrington advises, “In your search for the right conclusion, don’t fall prey to what has been called the “triumphalist imperative,” which favors completion over complexity.  Don’t shortchange the reality of life in which significant events are rarely put aside in a moment of insight, but continue unfolding into the future.”

Endings “grow inevitably from the stories themselves,” writes Dennis Covington.   An essay can pose a question, explore it, and end by asking the question in a new way.  A story can trace a character’s transformation from one state to another, better or worse.  A memoir can move from a haunting emotion through memory to understanding of the haunting emotion, without resolution.  Regardless, all stories contain within them their endings—even in memoir, where our lives continue beyond the bounds of the story.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew