Graduate school Meta Writing

Revising. And revising some more.

Justine Larbalestier on when a writing project is finished. Justine is answering questions about writing for the whole month of January, and doing so in an awesome and informative fashion. Highly recommended. She begins her response to the question of how to tell when a project is finished:

My immediate response is that no book is ever “well and truly done”. They could all be made better. Every single one of them, yes, even Pride and Prejudice.1 There is not point at which “you shouldn’t tamper with a story anymore”.

(The footnote is Justine’s: “1. Austen rushes the ending. There. I’ve said it.” Yep. Oh, Jane.)

I mentioned the idea of knowing when a project is finished the other day on Twitter. When I first started writing fiction — and non-fiction, including academic papers — I didn’t know how to revise. I knew how to edit in a superficial fashion, and I knew how to abandon projects that weren’t working. Sometimes I would rewrite sizable chunks of something, paragraphs or pages. But the idea of completely re-envisioning and rewriting a project didn’t make sense to me. This is partly because I edited as I wrote, which is still true. But it was also because the projects I was working on then were college papers, poems for poetry seminars, or stories that would never be published. The stakes were not high. I cared a great deal about my academic performance and I worked hard on the papers I wrote, but I didn’t fundamentally understand revision.

This began to change when I worked at the writing center at Smith, and it changed even more when I got to grad school, taught creative writing and composition, and worked at the writing center at UT, as well. If you want to learn to revise, try teaching others how to do it or practicing it on the works of others. (This is why I think workshops are extremely valuable, even though I found the structure of a semester-length workshop frustrating as a long-form writer.) I still revise while I write, but I’ve also learned to rewrite. I used to think the idea of obsessively polishing a project was absurd, but now I see its impractical appeal. Justine is absolutely right; every individual work can always be better. But she’s also right that time is finite. Sometimes things just have to be done.

For example: my soon-to-be-published article on Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote began as a seminar paper, then became a conference paper, then a drastically different full-length article, then a revised full-length article. It’s done and ready to be published, but of course it could still be improved if I had boundless time and resources. While I was revising, I caught odd glimpses of the article, perfected: the shining, beautiful, spare thing it could be, every word necessary and incisive… if I could only spend months on it alone. It was like a mirage, or maybe the grad-student version of scorbutic nostalgia. So I revised it to the best of my ability and declared it complete, and I went on to the next project with a much stronger (and, okay, weirder) understanding of why it might be difficult to stop polishing a piece of writing. I promise not to turn into Casaubon if I can help it.

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