Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sculpting Words

I’ve been asked a couple of times in recent writing workshops how many times I edit or rewrite my work. In those same settings, the subject of nanowrimo has come up. The two subjects are related.

Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month, is an effort to encourage writers to pound out 1600 words, or so, every day, all month long. Writers are told not to worry about editing, just get the words down.

This idea reflects the common practice of writing scads more material than you’ll need, then going back to edit out the garbage.
My sense is that the majority of writers work this way.

I suppose you could liken this to a sculptor chipping away at the stone until only the sculpture is left.

I work from the other direction. My writing, for better or worse, starts with the same blank page as a watercolorist. I build it up layer by layer, correcting minor errors as I go along. When it comes time to look over the whole thing I find a pencil mark or two to erase, or a spot that calls for another brushstroke.

How often do I edit? Constantly. I will write a couple thousand words in a session, then go back at the end of the day and edit lightly. The next day, I’ll read through what I wrote the day before, making minor tweaks as needed, then start the next session. Every three or four days, I’ll go back ten thousand words are so and check everything for flow. Again, I’ll change a word or two and discover places where I left out a word.

When the draft is finished, I’ll go back through the whole thing once more, then set it aside. I let it sit for about six weeks, then go through it again. At that point, it’s usually ready for an editor.

I don’t slash and burn, because I don’t write a lot of burnable material. Call that hubris, if you like. It’s just the way I learned to write. I have a background in two disciplines that force writers to use their words sparingly to convey a message: copywriting for radio and poetry. The two are not equivalent, but each has a finite box. For radio, the box is 30 or 60 seconds. For poetry, it is the form you choose to use, if you are using a form. Even relatively unstructured poetry has its own discipline of metrics and economy.

Mine way is the right way. For me. If writing reams then slashing away the excess works for you, go for it.

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