Sunday, January 22, 2012

Advice to writers...

Great column by Nick Mamatas on "Ten Bits of Advice Writers Should Stop Giving Aspiring Writers" isn't just funny, it's mostly spot on!

I have some reservations about #7, since the vast majority of writers do need to be prepared to revise; but yeah, I've met three first-draft writers who had no need to rewrite anything. It's extremely rare, and terribly annoying to the rest of us, but such people do exist.

And it must be said that many writers suffer from the opposite affliction of over-revising. In the early days, I myself had a lot of trouble moving forward on any project due to compulsive rewriting; which Candas Jane Dorsey finally cured by coming over and turning off my monitor. "Type without looking can edit later, when you've finished the first draft." Insanity! But it worked, and it got the point across, and while I'm still a bit obsessive about rewriting, it's not as bad as it was. So Manatas is right: "revise, revise, revise" is not suitable advice for everyone.

But, besides the fact that revision is kind of fundamental to the work of a developmental editor, most of the problems new writers, and especially grad students, bring me are based on the misunderstanding of the writing process as strictly first draft. Sociologist Howard Becker identified the problem in the 1960s: grad students (and by extension, many university-trained writers) have been trained to very bad writing habits by the assignment of term papers. Term papers are always first draft, night-before efforts on topics students don't care or know very much about. Successful undergraduates are, by definition, the ones who produce the best first draft work. Unfortunately, when they go to do graduate work, or write for a living, they discover that these larger scale projects are too big to work out in the shower the night before deadline, and they often flounder when the skills they mastered as undergraduates fail them in the face of a dissertation or novel. So most writers need to hear "revise, revise, revise" because they have to unlearn undergraduate writing, and be retrained to realize that most first drafts are rough drafts only, and not good enough for graduate work or real life publication. "Revise, revise, revise" is often useful advice in this context.

The bad news is that revision often means "re-conceptualizing", not just copy editing; and that it may take even experienced writers three or four or more revisions to achieve one's goals for the piece. Students accustomed to first-draft successes as undergraduates may become sullen and resentful when as graduate students they're told that they have to redo their thesis chapter yet again. I've encountered more than one graduate student and a host of beginning writers who simply could not conceive of revising their work beyond the merest copy editing for grammar and spelling. Re-thinking the piece was literally unthinkable for them.

The good news is that it's normal for one's first draft to come out as garbage, and that one therefore should not be deflated when comparing one's first draft efforts against the published work one sees around them. The truth is, the first draft of those published pieces probably sucked even worse than your first draft, but we hardly ever get to see others' original drafts. (Indeed, writers often go to extraordinary lengths to ensure no one ever sees their first drafts.) I've often had to explain this to students who have given up when their first drafts weren't up to their own expectations; nine times out of ten, when I force them to show me these initial efforts, they are way better than I would have expected at that stage in the process. So for me the moral is: relax, we'll catch it in the rewrite.

(Though having said that, I sold my second draft of "Split Decision" to Tesseracts 15 almost unchanged: my editor Lorina Stephens indicated where I had to cut extraneous asides and fix a few vocabulary issues/garbled sentences, and even those changes were so minor as to hardly count.... But that's pretty rare, at least for me. I'm already on the third draft of my story for Tesseracts 16—due next month—and I haven't even begun to reach a version worthy of sending to Lorina for editing, let alone submitting to the anthology. Occasionally the writing just flows, but it's a mistake to wait around until that happens!)

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