Writing Right with Dmitri: A Fresh Pair of Eyes
Interviewer: Do you rewrite?
O'Connor: Endlessly, endlessly, endlessly. And keep on rewriting, and after it’s published, and then after it’s published in book form, I usually rewrite it again.
Paris Review, Frank O'Connor interviewed by Anthony Whittier
Understandably, we all hate doing rewrites and revisions. We'd love it if readers, editors, and other interested parties simply snatched the copy from our unresisting hands and devoured the material as it came from our inspired brains. 'Perfect!' they'd exclaim. In your dreams, friend. You need to learn to revise. The quicker, the better, , and the less painful for all concerned. Even the experts do it: better said, especially the experts do it. Shakespeare surely did it.
If you have the help of an editor or editorial team, the task of revision is made easier by their notes and comments. Remember: when they provide these, they are telling you what they need, not judging your writing by some illusory standard of impossible perfection. There is no law in the universe that says Chicago Style is superior to any other style manual. If the client needs single quotes, or double quotes, or no curly apostrophes, or (like my current assignment) the words 'United States' spelled out in large, friendly letters rather than the curt and flippant 'US', so be it. Life is too short to worry about trifles like that. Memorise the specs and apply them. Then let your editors suggest the substantive revisions.
But if you don't have help, or if you want to give your editors a cleaner copy to begin with, you're faced with a problem. How do you revise yourself? After all, you thought what you wrote was fine, or you wouldn't have written it in the first place.
Here's my hot tip: You've got to learn to trick yourself into thinking you've never seen this manuscript before. For me, this is easy. I just put my writing in short-term memory and discard. This provides me not only with improved typo-spotting, but the luxury of laughing at my own jokes. ('Boy, this guy is funny. Who wrote this? Oh…')
There's a reason for this approach. It isn't about conceit. Or holding onto your word choices. It's because you have a mental record of those pages, and right now, your unconscious thinks they're supposed to look like that. You need to make the subconscious erase the blackboard. You need to fool your mind into providing you with a fresh eye.
A little over 20 years ago, I had a night school German class. I produced a lot of original lesson material for my students on my little word processor (remember those?). But no matter how assiduously I proofread, I always had at least one typographical error on a page. And I had a student who would find it within three seconds. Before I could hand him the paper and turn away, almost, he'd put his finger on the offending word and say, 'Shouldn't that be…?' And he was always right.
This man was a seventy-five-year-old retired meteorologist. Who was blind in one eye. But boy, could he spot a misplaced comma.
Here's my recommended procedure:
- Tell yourself you're finished. Take a break. Forget what you wrote.
- Look at it again. First time, just correct the typos, misspellings, and punctuation errors.
- Read the piece over for content. Ask yourself: What is this about? Can I tell right away? Does the hook make me want to read on? How could it be made more interesting? Tweak the format, paragraphing, etc.
- Now take a closer look at the way you're telling it. Could this sentence be clearer? Could that paragraph build to a sharper point? Will people enjoy reading this? Will they care?
- Lather, rinse, repeat until satisfied. But avoid the Frank O'Connor trap. Irish writer Frank O'Connor rewrote so much that his editor actually had to go over to his house and physically wrench the manuscript from the writer's iron grip. Know when to quit.
So there you have it. You can be your own proofreader. That doesn't mean somebody else won't come along and find a typo or error in three seconds flat. But you'll be happier with your work, and your prose will be stronger for it.
And now excuse me. I'm going to go for a walk. Then I'm going to proofread this piece.
Let me know if you find any errors.