For best prose & presentation, use an editing & revision process

Published writers always say revision is the sin qua non of effective prose. Dinty W. Moore just affirmed it in here my interview with him—he claims to produce weak first drafts, which become strong as they undergo up to 50 revisions. In her new The Art of Memoir, just reviewed, Mary Karr says one of her poems might take 60 versions. “I am not much of a writer,” she says, “but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.”

I used to think I was a great reviser myself. Probably because I edit and polish as I go, and then polish some more. Recently I’ve seen that two factors that impair my revising also seem to afflict some other writers.

The first issue involves resistance to complete structural overhauls. I saw this in my book. I put it through six versions, which embodied two excellent, hired developmental edits; one free problematic one; a paid whole-book copy edit; and countless piecemeal edits from friends and fellow writers. After all that, I resisted—because I feared—the mere idea of soliciting one more opinion. I was scared that someone would show me clearly that I needed a whole new approach that would send me back to the blank screen.

Cheryl Strayed2

[Cheryl Strayed’s Wild taught me structure.]

I’ve seen this resistance in other writers, and it’s a problem if the writer has stopped too soon—no matter how many years s/he’s labored. Ironically, and thankfully, while reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild at the eleventh hour, I saw a key structural move I needed. And a new template for my prologue. I’ve written about this breakthrough, which I saw only because of years of work, including the advice I had been receptive to. After learning how to use backstory from Strayed, and writing a new prologue that like hers showcases a dramatic moment, I knew my book was ready.

It gives me chills to recall that an editor had actually suggested, at the very start of my writing, the restructuring I took from Wild—but I’d forgotten his advice. At the time, I didn’t understand why it would be better to scatter memories of my father throughout the book, rather than corral him in one chapter. Strayed’s artful deployment of her own backstory turned on the light.

Using a prose revision process: Richard Lanham’s method

Recently it was painful to follow advice and strip an entire thread from a long essay (discussed) I drafted over the summer. My test readers said it didn’t work within the overall story. At first, I tried to ignore them. I’d had such hopes for it, and it was so much work to write.

The essay flows from my finding an old cane; its contested element concerned my wife’s recuperation from foot surgery—why I found the cane in the first place. “But she really grounds the essay,” I protested. Inwardly I agreed that I hadn’t managed to link the tale of her foot to the essay’s larger themes. When one reader pointed out my essay’s true organizing principle, it helped me push off stage my sore-footed wife—she was thrilled to be cut—and to shine the spotlight elsewhere.

Then an awful, humbling problem materialized. “The essay is flat,” said my friend Beth. The recovery thread had been scenic and lively, which obscured that my syntax in the main threads got turgid. I was trying hard to be reflective—too hard. Too many prepositions, too much passivity, to many “is” and “was”—the old “to be” issue—and lots of clauses. These are galling first-draft problems. An example of the “is problem”:

It was rewarding vs. It felt rewarding.

The first is a godlike but bland statement of “fact” that obscures the person doing the feeling and loses subjectivity’s honest idiosyncratic appeal. Focused on whipping up a new dish, I had dropped a trusty old casserole dish on my toe.

Lanham, Revising Prose

Beth is a scholar, and her essays on writers are clear and graceful. “What I do,” she said, “is follow Richard Lanham’s steps in Revising Prose. I circle the prepositions, rework some ‘is’ forms, make everything active. I look for dangling modifiers because that’s a problem for me.” I knew of Lanham but hadn’t thought I needed him. Or, rather, hadn’t thought I needed any systematic process—because “I rewrite.”

I looked up Lanham’s new, fifth edition of Revising Prose on Amazon found a stunning textbook price: $50 for its 176 pages. Instead, I ordered the $5.50 fourth edition. There’s a fine review of the new edition, by C. J. Singh, of Berkeley, California, which explains Lanham’s core principles.

An excerpt of Singh’s review:

In each of the five editions of “Revising Prose,” Lanham added fresh examples and exercises to its core content: the Paramedic Method comprising eight steps as follows.

1. Circle the prepositions;
2. Circle the “is” forms;
3. Find the action;
4. Put this action in a simple (not compound) active verb;
5. Start fast – no slow windups;
6. Read the passage aloud with emphasis and feeling;
7. Write out each sentence on a blank screen or sheet of paper and mark off its basic rhythmic units with a “/”;
8. Mark off sentence length with a “/.”

Basically, Lanham’s Paramedic Method advises you to delete prepositional phrases and “is” forms and replace them with active verbs.

To foster diversity in my diction and to avoid misusing words, recently I adopted John McPhee’s practice of drawing boxes around distinctive or mundane nouns, verbs, adjectives in his final draft. Then you look up the words, consider alternatives. Now I’m going to try Lanham’s process.

For years, my most effective revision standby has been reading my last draft aloud. Maybe it’s my trying new writing approaches—thus experiencing the dreaded learning-curve effect—or maybe it’s just my age, but it appears I need to add to my  revision toolkit.

What methods are effective for you in revision?


  • shirleyhs says:

    Alas, Richard, I never achieved this level of polish in my book. Like you, I look for ways to use active verbs and revise even as I draft. I read much of the text out loud and went through several drafts (how can you count them with word processing?) I also sought out a developmental editor who, along with the publisher’s editors, made lots of improvements.

    I appreciate the way your blog highlights the different levels of writing and editing. Writing has never been my full-time work. But I’ve done enough to understand why Sarah Orne Jewett urged Willa Cather to become single-minded about her art. Cather quit her day job as the editor of McClure’s Magazine and never looked back.

    • Richard says:

      Yes, my friend’s somewhat formal process surprised me, Shirley. I wonder how many professional writers have formal stages? It is so internalized by then it can be hard to tell, even for them, I bet. What I am also brooding about is Mary Karr’s “writing is hard” line and her implication that it’s not for civilians. I think that’s behind this post, and I may have to address it directly.

    • Jumping in on the interesting conversation around the question of different levels of writing and editing, and the difference between professional-soldier and civilian writers. I’m a strong believer in making the act of writing accessible for people of all stages, and I think it’s truly fabulous that people who aren’t obsessed with writing, who don’t have a professional goal of being a literarure-producing genius (in the Romantic-Victorian sense of the word “genius”), are writing.

      I use all of the methods you’ve talked about above, Richard. I generally go through a gazillion edits and totally restructure my concept at least 2 or 3 times before I feel like it’s got enough life in it to be taken off the life-support of multiple-revisions and is read to hand on to a reader. And my first reader is an intelligent, critical, but not avid reader, who is ruthlessly impolite and matter-of-face, about what doesn’t work and why. “It’s boring. It’s trite. It’s silly. It’s out of character. It’s incoherent… ”

      The “not avid” part is important. I’ve found that so many of us who read, are READERS, and will tolerate a lot of meandering and weakness to ferret out the gems we so long to find in the written word. And all thoughtful writers will have some of those gems. Every other person who knows me is too kind to me, because I’m really sweet and very easy to be kind to. And because I’m attracted to kind-hearted people. So I have this reader I trust, and I’m happy he’s ruthlessly unkind.

      But — it still kills me whenever it’s time to turn my manuscript over to him.

      Yesterday I just read an hilariously-funny (because it’s oh-so-true) essay about what it feels like to revise after an edit. It feels like going through the 5 stages of grief. Don’t read it if the f-word offends you. But if you can get past a little f-ing rage, you might find this a funny and enlightening read.

      Because it kills me so much to suffer his judgement, during the past ten years I’ve learned to revise with images of my not-avid-reader critic leaning over my shoulder, before I hand my manuscript to him. Recently, before I gave him 100 pages (the start of my novel), I had revised, and revised, and revised, (for like 2 years!!) before I felt I could take the beginning of the book off of life-support.

      He said, “Great! Great! This is your best writing yet. There’s only one chapter that I hated…”

      Of course I’m fixing that chapter. And the truth is, I knew he’d hate it, but I talked myself into believing he wouldn’t. I had grown so attached to i, but he ferreted out my denial of the hard truth. “This is like the stuff you wrote six years ago, not like the way you’ve learned to write now.” In fact, I had written the chapter six years ago. It birthed the novel and it was my precious baby and I didn’t want to change a thing about its cute little toes and itty-bitty precious fingers. I didn’t want it to grow up!

      I highly suggest that every serious writer develop rhinoceros skin, and find a hyper-critical, not-avid, no-nonsense beta reader.

      • Richard says:

        Wow, what an interesting, generous response, Tracy. What your experience confirms for me is that I’m not going to see my lapses go away. That’s what the editing and revision process is for! Why it exists and is vital.

        • That’s what your post did for me. The editing process is painful, and I keep hoping I can/will outgrow it. I may grow into needing less editing, but I will always be too familiar with my own writing to read it like a “reader,” encountering it for the first time. I appreciated the reminder that this is just the way it is.

  • What a great topic, Richard. Revision, in its many forms, unnerves the best writer on the planet, I’m sure. As you know my forthcoming memoir went through countless edits and revisions. During each one … I seemed to notice something different. Impossible to pay attention to everything at once, isn’t it? My final edit, however, illuminated more than expected. I knew I had to read it straight through without a significant break in time … I gave myself two weeks, period, to get through every page. Previously, I was spending about six weeks on a manuscript edit. Immediately, I saw things that were simply not apparent at a more leisurely pace. Relieved I had committed to the pressure of a two-week edit, I realized it helped me catch repetition, a lack of clarity, and other niggling details. I must admit to a degree of pain. Long days, frustration, typing, and deleting … while my mind whispered: “aren’t you done … yet?” The tough part is I’m pretty sure I could repeat this process countless times, finding something else each time through. Alas, we move on … (Lanham’s book looks wonderful). I haven’t read my manuscript aloud, not in its entirety at any rate, but that’s a good idea too. Courage. Each step, each read through … takes such enormous courage.

    • Richard says:

      How true: “Impossible to pay attention to everything at once…” There is just too much! And your point is great about courage, Daisy. That’s a positive and helpful way to think about writing and editing.

  • Hi, Richard. Funnily enough, a method that I have employed sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. While I still strictly follow such possibly old-fashioned rules as resisting splitting an infinitive (to paraphrase what they say on “Star Trek,” “to boldly [split infinitives] that have never been [split] before”), I am partial to the method of reading aloud. But I also think that it’s handy to keep in mind the example of Henry James (I know I mention him a lot, but he was my thesis topic): when he got older and began to write to dictation, that was possibly one of the sources of the late style. As you are no doubt aware, in the late style he had periodic sentence upon periodic sentence, and proved once and for all that not everyone speaks more simply than they write. The opportunity for verbal perambulations and permutations can be endless when you are thinking aloud. So, sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t: as much as I like reading the later James, I know that no one writes like that these days, at least usually not without an intention to practice parody or reference.

    • Richard says:

      Point taken, Victoria! Reading aloud IS affected by how one speaks and by one’s goals. I had read my essay several times when my friend pointed out it had gotten flat. I did not see it because I was trying to be reflective, thoughtful, profound. And what better way than to be clause-laden and preposition-heavy and otherwise discursive? Well, paring away MOST prepositions helps, and underscores the virtues of those you leave. Or so I think—and hope, and am acting upon.

  • Janice Gary says:

    Ah, structure. I just did– rather, taught– a two- part class on this and everyone wanted more. I think structure is the hardest thing for memoirists because of the nature of life and memory. We live our days wandering back and forth between past, present and future. As for Lanham’s paramedic advice, if I followed it strictly, I think it would freeze me. I’m already a slow writer and a perfectionist. And the perfect can be a real trap. ( I just spent five minutes revising this comment.) However, I love good writing and discussions like this help me slowly move toward that goal. Thanks Richard.

    • Richard says:

      Jan, agreed on Lanham, to this extent: I’d never invoke his process till the final, end stage. I edit enough as I go, as it is!

      On structure, wish I could have taken your classes! What a great focus. My post probably gives the impression, as Karr’s micro chapter did, that her insight is the last word on structure. Hardly. Just amazing all she might have said regarding her own structures within that structure, or the books she might have analyzed. Oh well. As I said, I found her brisk judgment clarifying if not complete.

  • Structure is next-level writing, major-league stuff, what separates hacks and wannabes from the pros. The more you read, the more you realize that what we want above all else from a story isn’t so much great characters (though appreciated), a great voice (though appreciated), but structure.

    It’s like a tuning an instrument: When things are structured well, you just feel it.

    Jon Franklin’s “Writing for Story” helps flesh out the structure question early in the process. Also, listening to any interview with “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan shows how intense focus on structure still yields artistically free and satisfying storytelling.

    The more I do this, the more I’m attracted to boundaries, that coloring within the lines is freeing so long as I can choose the color.

    • Richard says:

      There’s a book here, Brendan. Or at least a chapter, fleshing out: “It’s like a tuning an instrument: When things are structured well, you just feel it.”

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