Friday, January 28, 2011

Opinions are Like Assholes

One thing we talked about last night in workshop was Drafts. To Revise Or Not To Revise, that is the question. I write fast, don't revise a whole lot, but then probably revise more than I realize. That's because working on a computer lends itself to multiple drafts easily. It's not like the good old typewriter days when a new draft was much more labor intensive. On the other hand, I rarely write something then sit on it for six months or a year and come back to it. I did do that with my last novel, which was swiftly rejected by the first agent I sent it to. Maybe the message she was trying to send me was that I suck at fiction. I could also interpret it as, you know, it doesn't matter that I sat and waited before revising it. If I ever dig it back out and rework it again, and if this nets me a book contract, maybe I'll have some stunning new thoughts on the power of revision. For now, in this wacky world of Internet writing, so much of what I (and a lot of other people) write is just blurted out. 

Besides self-revision, there's also the matter of Input from Others. I recently did a contract job where everything I wrote had to be reviewed by about six different people, all higher than me in rank. Even though I was brought in as a specialist, and none of these supervisors were writers, they were allowed to, and seemed to really enjoy, littering the margins of my document with countless requests for changes. Often, these people would counter one another. Sometimes, from draft to draft, someone would counter a section I had revised to THAT PERSON'S SPECIFICATIONS-- ie they would look at a change they had insisted on and then tell me it was wrong, even though often enough I cut and pasted their request verbatim. Ha! Equally annoying were comments like, "This doesn't work for me," and "I don't like that." Okay, great, very constructive, thank you. I'll just read your mind now and guess what you don't like about it and change the copy accordingly. 

Seriously, writing by committee should absolutely be outlawed. It calls to mind two of my favorite jokes about editing-- one is visual, the other a joke. Here's the visual, which pretty much captures the job I described above:

Original sentence: The cat has a fluffy tail.

Editor One: The cat  feline specimen has  possesses a fluffy tail posterior fur embellishment.

Editor Two: The cat  feline specimen mammal that descended from lions and became domesticated has  possesses bears a fluffy tail posterior fur embellishment phallic protrusion at its hind end that is comprised of short hair sprouting from follicles.

Editor Three: [Note to writer-- how did you come up with this? You need to simplify. See my suggestion below.]
The cat  feline specimen mammal that descended from lions and became domesticated has  possesses bears a fluffy tail posterior fur embellishment phallic protrusion at its hind end that is comprised of short hair sprouting from follicles.

Suggestion: The cat has a fluffy tail.

And now the joke: 
A plane crashes in the desert. The only survivors are an editor and a writer. They crawl, parched, for days searching for water. At last they come upon an oasis. The writer dips her head in and starts slurping up the water. The editor drags himself to his feet, staggers, pulls down his zipper, and starts pissing in the water. The writer says, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!!" and the editor says, "I'M MAKING IT BETTER!"

That, too, has been the story of my life far too often. It's bad enough having to make my own changes and while I'm not above the assistance of a good editor, far too many of them want revisions made not to improve a piece but just so they can put their dirty little hands all over your writing. (Once, I was assigned to write a story about children and depression for a magazine. The editor sent a note back after my first draft asking, "Can't you make it a little more... peppy?" Hey, the universe got even with her-- she went on to ghostwrite Clay Aiken's autobio.)

I did read a couple of quotes about revisions that both appeal to me. Further testament to my inability to be decisive-- I sort of agree with both of them:

“My ‘first draft’ is IT. I’ve tried once or twice, but I haven’t the mental stamina and I feel all the time that although what I’m attempting may be different, it won’t be better and may very well be worse, because my heart isn’t in it.”
--Dick Francis, Jockey and Writer

"It can take years. With the first draft, I just write everything. With the second draft, it becomes so depressing for me, because I realize that I was fooled into thinking I’d written the story. I hadn’t—I had just typed for a long time. So then I have to carve out a story from the 25 or so pages. It’s in there somewhere—but I have to find it. I’ll then write a third, fourth, and fifth draft, and so on."
And now-- your thoughts on revisions? Bonus points if you post a comment and then follow it up with a second, more thoughtfully written comment.


  1. I revise my own work as I am writing and often much later if the writing is important to me. There are certain people,like my son, whose editing makes my work better. I don't believe everyone's opinions are automatically better than my own though I try to be kind when listening to them! I share your belief that committees are the killers of writing, good and bad. I write advertising for my client's jobs and used to let them have revision power. Unbelievable garbage used to come out of it. If they could write ads they wouldn't need to pay me big bucks to find them candidates. Now I do not ever let them even see the advertising emails I send out nor do I tell them where I place their ads. Committees take out everything original or striking about work until there is nothing left. I think it is pretty funny to read employment ads from hospitals who desperately need a physician specialist and desperately need to stand out from the crowd and their ads all sound the same. Committees, committees...

  2. I wish opinions were like assholes and people had only one of each.