Revision. Oh my God, Revision. Say it with me: Revision.
Let’s get right to it because that’s the first lesson in revision. You have to edit your writing. And you can’t write anything worth reading without it.
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When I was in graduate school, I had to publish papers in exercise and mental health. Ann’s research here *. Don’t bother clicking on that link. I only provide it to prove that I did, in fact start my publishing journey writing about exercise psychology. I hardly believe I did it. I did not enjoy it.
Right around the time I was about to graduate with my doctorate, my mentor said to me,
“You are one of the worst writers I’ve ever seen.”
I remember wanting to laugh and die. I knew he was right, and it’s a credit to my parents that my self-esteem was high enough to keep writing. Finally making a career of it, both as a scientist and now as a novelist.
Writing fiction is an entirely different kind of writing than science writing. In some ways, writing papers that summarize research is easier. There are rules, lots of them. Writing stories mined from your imagination has far fewer rules to guide you. This sort of writing is part art, part craft, part insanity.
I’m not sure what combination of grit and magical thinking convinced me I could do it. But that is a different essay. One that I’m working on with my therapist.
My experience with my mentor and difficulty writing my scientific papers does beg the question: Why did I keep going? The answer is love. I loved writing fiction in a way that I never loved writing about exercise physiology. And the thing that kept me loving it was revision.
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Revision makes your writing sing the song you want to hear. It takes the rough ideas that are first to fall on the page and nurtures them with care and craft. It is fulfilling the promise of communicating carefully. Something we don’t get to do when we are speaking. Revision is the gift of time that we wish we had in conversations.
Recently, I read this quote from Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor at the New Yorker: “The difference between an amateur and a professional is that an amateur really likes everything they do”
He and my graduate school mentor would be best friends, that’s clear, but I heard him. If you’re going to be a professional, you’ve got to revise your stuff.
Having said that, I revise everything. Texts, emails, tweets, and essays. I rearrange, I rewrite, and when I’m done, I ask my friends who are very skilled at close reading to help show me where I’m unclear. They put commas in. They say to me, “Ann, right here, I think you can do better. I’ve seen you do better.”
My editors, friends, and publisher are the people who help take my work from something a little shiny to something that gleams. It’s through their eyes that I often see what is best and also flawed in my writing. Without revision, I wouldn’t be an author because while I’m not the worst writer globally, I’m not the best I can be. Through revision, I keep learning, and as long as I keep learning, I’ll keep writing.