Julian Barnes Noise of Time ms

[Manuscript page from Julian Barnes’s new novel The Noise of Time. Barnes was interviewed about his writing process for LitHub by John Freeman, who took the photo.]

Other eyes seem intrinsic to revision in writing’s drafting process.

You start off with different possible tonalities and the right one only gradually comes into play.—novelist Julian Barnes, in the interview about his process on LitHub.

Julian Barnes, novelist

[Master reviser: novelist Barnes.]

When you ask someone to read your work, I tell students, convey what concerns you have. Readers tend to report what they noted anyway, maybe errors underscoring their own expertise. Which often consists of the baggage they carry from past English teachers—rules of thumb enforced as rules. “I was taught never to use a sentence fragment!” “You can’t begin a sentence with and.” “Semicolons look too fussy.” So, I say to my classes, “Be sure to get your questions addressed.”

My students seem to receive their best advice from people who regularly write. In the college setting, this means other students. On average, any student writes much more than the typical American. Students in the same writing class tend to convey the sharpest insights, of course, since they also know that particular genre. People lacking confidence as readers usually don’t do much writing themselves—especially “creative” writing: any kind of essay, narrative or personal journalism, poems, stories. Which means, I think, they doubt their own experience of reading the work. Maybe they think it’s their fault when they trip over infelicities. Or they wonder about gaps or TMI but, unaware of how much rethinking writers do, assume content is fixed.

Historically, taste has been developed by steady, close reading of quality stories, poems, essays, and novels. Every reader helps, though. Suggesting one better word is huge. The most comprehensive reader of my work I’ve ever had was a fellow teacher. She taught literature and composition and also published scholarly essays. She read a lot of good books, both classics and current; she constantly graded and edited student essays; all the while, she worked to make her own writing clear, colloquial, trenchant. The judgment and technical expertise she brought to bear on my work was humbling. But one person, even if she’s a great editor, isn’t enough. Everyone catches something. At least three readers seems ideal.

If only by salving loneliness, a writing posse buffers two things about writing that irk me. The first: unclear aesthetic choices—where to begin? what’s vital versus extraneous? which passage to end on? At first, I hate to admit, I find such uncertainty actually painful. If I stick with a piece long enough, however, the distressing issue clarifies; at least, I’m able to justify my choice. Sometimes a reader can help, if I point out the choice I’ve made and the other option(s).

The second vexation: how late into the writing process my basic errors persist: awkwardness, lack of clarity, poor word choice, unclear timeline. Here, my readers always help me take work to a new level. While I’m greedy for this boost, my need for it perturbs me—why can’t I catch everything? Just recently, someone noticed I’d used “defines” in a similar, distinctive usage three times in a 12-page essay. This was after I’d worked on the piece for two months. Reading aloud, a key part of my process, would have caught it. Actually I had read it aloud, but I’d lingered so long over its “final” stage that I’d added bits, moved sentences, substituted words. My friend’s catch defined embarrassment for me. Lesson learned, I hope.

Do you have a writing posse? Friends you trade work with? How have other eyes helped your writing?

Julian Barnes longhand

[The LitHub interview with Julian Barnes also features this John Freeman photo. Does Barnes write in longhand first, before typing up his manuscript? Appears so.]

If you make the commitment to perseverance and repetition, you will have words in front of you, you will have sentences. The wonderful thing about writing is it can always be made better. But it can’t always be made. If you can make it, you can make it better. Translate writing’s mental problems into a physical problem, because writing’s mental problems will never be solved.—Adam Gropnik on Charlie Rose’s “Green Room” feature at YouTube, below.



  • iballrtw says:

    “If you can make it, you can make it better.” What Adam Gropnik says is what I learned early in my first real job that required writing to convey results to clients. Get something on paper. For some reason, it is easier (for me, at least) to edit than to create. Although editing is also creative, the end result comes faster through editing than when trying to create the whole thing all at once.

    • Richard says:

      I agree! I think I learned in my years as a reporter that sometimes you just have to plunge in. Lately I have been thinking it would be good to do more thinking before I write. But I cannot hold very much in my head. Once I have something on the page, as you say, I can massage it and add to it as new ideas arise.

    • This same concept can be applied in areas other than writing. Brainstorming and mind mapping are in part so popular because it’s far easier to react to a slew of ideas than it is to simply come up with the perfect one from the get go.

      • Richard says:

        So true. It’s kind of interesting how group work and others’ input is discounted, not just in writing. Your comment makes me think humans tend toward the lone genius notion in many realms!

  • As one who reads the work of other writers for a living, I’m continually scanning pages for those tics and habits that every writer possesses (like a preference for the word ‘defines’, for instance!), and every single writer possesses them, and doesn’t see them.

    How to use a comma in a compound sentence is an issue I see in nearly every writer’s work. I continually correct errors and provide instruction about this issue, yet just this morning, as I was reading over my own novel manuscript, I saw comma omissions in compound sentences on every other page! And the only reason I’m seeing them now is because I’ve been away from the work for some time.

    So yes, I have a ‘writing posse’, not for this reason alone, but this reason alone would be sufficient.

    • Richard says:

      I know! If I read a major writer long enough, I become familiar not just with her rhythms but her favorite words. If they’re unusual, that’s a tic. Annie Dillard likes catenary and battens, plus kind of unusual/awkward possessive constructions.

  • Hi, Richard. One thing that strikes me about Julian Barnes right off is the repetition in his cadences; poetic, evocative, and when all’s said and done, memorable. But the act of memory is a funny thing: I keep asking myself why, with all of his inventiveness and verve and wit, he named a novel ‘The Sense of an Ending” years after Frank Kermode had entitled his groundbreaking and later reissued critical study “The Sense of an Ending.” I’ve read Kermode repeatedly at some stages when I was doing my thesis, and I’ve now got Julian Barnes’s book on my library website to read it and see if there’s some overt connection.

    • Richard says:

      I did not even think of that, Victoria. Surely he knew he was taking the title?! It sounds like you’d recommend Kermode’s book. I do think that unconscious borrowing is pervasive in writing as well. The books that affect us and go deep, often at a very early age, we may try to emulate—at a more detailed level than we usually can imagine.

  • Richard, thanks for bringing this up. I absolutely believe writing is best done in collaboration with a support group. That does not diminish the value of professional edits, but relying on a single editor is a slippery slope. How can you be sure you chose the best one? And an editor is only one additional point of view.

    I have one writing buddy who is great with emotional content, another is a structure freak. Several are good at finding holes and lame parts and repetition. One has an amazing ear for voice and tone. Various ones are great at suggesting refinements.

    That river flows in a circle. I can’t rely on them if they can’t rely on me. I’ll never be too busy to do a read-through for a writing buddy. Keeping a balance between my own writing and supporting others is often a challenge.

    • Richard says:

      It sounds as if your experience mirrors mine, Sharon. Everyone brings a particular strength. I wonder how many do all this by email. I’m forced to, except for one or two local friends.

  • Clay Cormany says:

    I am part of a five-member writing posse (we flatter ourselves with the term “critique group”) that has been together almost 10 years. We started as members of a fiction-writing class in the summer of 2006 and hit it off so well we stayed together after the class ended. Ten years later, we understand each other’s writing quite well and have even developed areas of specialty. I focus on grammar and sentence structure, Steve has an eye for POV lapses while Shawn is strong with dialogue. As Sharon (the previous commenter) noted the “river flows in a circle.” My fellow writers and I keep our river flowing by sending out submissions well in advance of our face-to-face meetings, so each posse member has ample time to review them carefully. But more than anything, our river receives its strength from mutual respect and from a feeling that when it comes to writing, we are rowing the same boat.

    • Richard says:

      Your group situation sounds optimum, Clay. I envy you. Together almost 10 years—amazing! Also I wonder if five is a perfect size for face-to-face meetings. Not too big or too small.

      • Clayton says:

        Five works for us. It also helps to have a regular time and place for gathering and to critique no more than two submissions per meeting.

        • Richard says:

          Makes sense. 15 minutes doesn’t feel like much feedback when it’s your piece, and if four gave that much each you’d eat up an hour right there.

  • Nightwisp says:

    I could not agree more with this article! As a new writer, I constantly doubt my work and the opinions of those who have read it, constantly needing more validation. The opinions of multiple people most definitely help, however, I’ve found that you must be true to your work and never try to please everyone or you may find yourself lost!

    • Richard says:

      I agree, Leah. Almost everyone gives three kinds of advice: brilliant, maybe, and crazy. We know to take the first! And the second, if more than one person says it, surely. But the third, no, it strikes us as just wrong. The trick is knowing when it’s just your ego fighting. But I do think we know!

  • Keith Haney says:

    Thank you for this article. You addressed so many of the concerns I have about writing. I allowed fear and uncertainty to stop me for writing for many years.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks, Keith. I think fear is one of the biggest issues writers face. It was for me. On the sixth and final draft of my book, I had to force myself to the keyboard every morning. I advocate love of the project over discipline, but I was in good writing shape by that time—had built my muscles in 7 years of writing and rewriting the memoir—so I imposed the D word. My resistance problem was new and puzzling, but I finally decided that for some reason fear had kicked in.

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