Years ago a dear friend invited me into his office, and as I sat down he slid a couple of pages across the desk and asked me to read them. Another mutual acquaintance had treated a friend of his in an admittedly unprofessional manner and my friend felt compelled to point out his errancy in a very sharply worded letter, in which he brushed up against threats as to how he intended to treat this person in future interactions. Based on his position of public visibility and authority, I suggested that my friend put the letter in his side drawer and let it simmer a few days, then re-read it and consider (1) rewriting it, or, (2) better yet, rounding-filing it.
My friend didn’t heed the advice, and, in the heat of passion that probably would have cooled after those self-imposed few days, he mailed the letter. It cost him dearly in terms of his position and reputation. His regrets came, but they arrived too late and were no replacement for the wisdom he should have exercised. Apologies can’t mend a well-torched bridge. My suggestion to wait was based on the knowledge that one’s written perspectives are inevitably altered by time, especially when initially driven by anger or outrage. The ardor of the night before cools by morning light. The same applies to the improvement of diction and logic. We age our wine and whiskey and need to do the same to our words.
When our thoughts first flow onto paper, the words are seldom ideal. Fortunately, our subconscious continues to mull them over along with the thoughts that prompted them, and inevitably, comes up with a different or better tack, like Monet, caught years after his painting had hung in a Paris museum tweaking a few brush strokes that apparently displeased him.
Word and phrase selection can be critically important in a letter seeking admission to the college you wish to attend or to state your qualifications for a position you seek. Time invested to let your words gestate is always a wise investment. Rarely is first written best written. It’s just the way the human brain works. It grabs something off the easy-to-reach lower shelf that will do the job, but only adequately. You have to take the time to get the ladder and climb up to the really good stuff on the top shelf.
I don’t recall anything I’ve ever written where a little additional time—and effort—did not improve it at least by a little, and, more frequently, by a lot. It is the writer’s lot to write something only to discover the original sense of clarity got lost or sidetracked in the literary fog that concealed the fact we got off track and which only becomes obvious in the brightness of a new day.
Whole concepts, approaches, words, and verbs are missed or overlooked or initially not thought of, let alone considered. What we originally think is clear is confusing. Our flow gets snagged on the rocks along the bottom of our literary stream. The fact that this happens is natural and constitutes no failure. It’s part of the creative process of constant refinement. The failure is when we don’t see what needs to be edited, rewritten, or revised.
On ancient maps, unexplored territory was sometimes indicated by the notation, “Here there be dragons.” The same applies to a writer’s map, which seldom is the product of the best cartographer. The writer is constantly sailing into new and uncharted waters and thus called upon to slay more than a few dragons, many of her own making.
With practice, getting things down the first time a little better than the first time the last time, moves the writer inches closer to attaining his desired ideal with less and less effort. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Instead, pack a lunch. It’s part of the writing process and the writing process mimics all of man’s endeavors to continually seek to improve. But, in time, the time needed to the keep the “letter in the side drawer” shortens. As you become better at putting words on paper, you become better at editing them and able to set aside the emotional investment and take on the steely-eyed, unmerciful objectivity necessary to improve them. These are cumulative skills and it’s important to exercise patience and commit to the process that allows them to continue to develop.
Younger writers will chastise themselves for “not getting it right” more quickly the first time. But it’s part of the process of learning and practice. There are a few things you can do to shorten the distance between desire and reality, or what I call “psychic distance”—the ability to look at your own work as if it was someone else’s. One, constantly practice on other people’s efforts. What would you do to improve an article you read in a newspaper or magazine or a chapter in a book? You will discover that some publications are extremely well written, i.e., edited. In those cases, assess why what you’re reading is so good, and apply those lessons to your own efforts. Don’t undersell yourself; you’ll start to discover that what you have written is actually better, or at least constitutes a good alternative to what you read. Television automobile ads are good to practice on. They frequently present the worst ad copy around, lacking in both quality and logical continuity.
Secondly, change your perspective. I do this in two ways. I change where I write. I might try the deck, which frequently includes a favorite brand of cigar, then move to the softer light of my office. I also like to put my laptop or tablet on a TV tray and sit on the couch or in my easy chair.
Thirdly, I change not just where I write, but on what I write. Only recently have I reached that point where I can walk into a Microsoft or Apple store and not walk out with a bag or a box—not because I don’t find anything, I already have everything. That means I can change not only where I write but on what I write. A blog inevitably starts on some tablet and at some point gets transferred to my desktop. My problem now is keeping track of the device on which I was working.
Fourthly, take a break and work on something else, even it’s the start of a letter to a friend. I’ll e-mail my friend who is a painter and working on his own website, thus giving me a chance to explore something other than my own effort. It’s all about creating that psychic distance that provides the fresh set of eyes when I return to my screen. It’s like being away from a familiar place for a while. When you return, it looks—at least temporarily—a little different.
Fifthly, when you find some piece of writing that is really well done, pay attention to it, especially advertising copy. A really good ad writer must tell a story in 30 to 60 seconds. That’s about one page of copy. After a while it becomes a game, and you find yourself developing a critical ear, which leads to a critical eye necessary to assess your own efforts.
Here’s an example from my Facebook posting for my recent blog entry titled “Good Enough as Not Good Enough.” Once a blog is wrapped and ready for posting, I sit down and draft three entries—one for Facebook, one for LinkedIn, and one for Twitter, in which I introduce the blog topic and provide a link to the entry. I write the Facebook one first, then “tweak it down” to one for LinkedIn, then peel off everything to the skeletal bare bones to fit into Twitter’s 139 character limit. That process alone is a worthwhile practice. Here’s the first draft I wrote for Facebook:
People who write about writing—that’s me—love little anecdotes like this one: When asked what prompted him to rewrite the end of last page of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, Hemingway answered simply: “Getting the words right.” Similarly, years ago, I saw an alleged draft of Dickens’ first page of A Tale of Two Cities on which he had written the first line eighteen times before finally settling on “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” So what happens to the writer willing to settle for the first effort as opposed to the sixth, or tenth, or, in Dickens’ case, the nineteenth. The answer is we don’t know because we never heard of him or her. Well, we might were he a poet in the modern world. I’ve discovered an approach to poetry that I find rather offensive—that the first words on the paper are the ones most closely attuned to the poet’s original intent and thus should not be tampered with. No other human endeavor has ever taken that position—that the first draft is good enough. It’s an invitation to mediocrity, which I explore in “Good Enough as Not Good Enough” in this week’s blog at howtobeabetterwriter.com.
This version was pared down to this:
Why rewrite the last page of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times? Said Hemingway: “Getting the words right.” Every literary effort since man first drew on cave walls has been to edit, alter, modify, and tweak to improve the initial effort. One school of poets now argue that the first words written best reflect the writer’s intention, so hands off the red pencil. Let’s hope we don’t see an “Up with Mediocrity” movement. There’s enough mediocrity in the world. In “Good Enough as Not Good Enough,” I endorse the tradition of reaching past good and better to invest effort in the best.
I then typically print a hardcopy and let it sit while as I complete a few chores and/or work on another writing effort and come back to it with fresh eyes:
Why rewrite the last page of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times? To get the words right, said Hemingway. Every literary effort since man drew on cave walls has been to improve his initial efforts. One school of poets now argue that the first words written best reflect the writer’s intention, so hands off the red pencil. Are we going to see an “Up with Mediocrity” movement? Enough with mediocrity. Isn’t there already enough mediocrity in the world? In “Good Enough as Not Good Enough,” I explore the tradition of reaching past good and better to achieve the best.
So then I transferred my effort from my Surface Pro to my iMac, where the last tweak was limited to modifying the last sentence to read: “. . . I explore the tradition of reaching past good and better for best.” That’s what I posted on Facebook. You’ll note that with each effort I took words out. By the end of the process, the reader didn’t need to click on the “more” option. The point I sought to make remained unchanged, just considerably more efficiently written.
Now in my own Monet-in-the-museum moment, had I more time, I would have written this:
Thirty-nine times Hemingway rewrote the last page of Farewell to Arms to “[Get] the words right.” Since his cave paintings, man has sought to improve his literary efforts. One school of poets now posits that first written best reflects a writer’s true intentions so should not be subject to the editor’s pen. In this week’s blog—“Good Enough as Not Good Enough—I posit that’s the path to mediocrity, and mediocre is never best.
As I sit back and ponder, I see a couple of other potential edits. I won’t make them, but you should always practice this editing game—to create the psychic distance that will help you to review your own efforts with fresh eyes. Soon you’ll discover that you won’t need to slip anything into the desk drawer for a few days in order to develop the skill of critical self-assessment, and the quality of your writing will improve.