In the thick of revising SOME NERVE and came across Emily Temple of Flavorwire's 20 Great Writers on the Art of Revision, a round up of extremely (and perhaps unsurprisingly) well-written pieces of advice from the likes of Roald Dahl, Stephen King, Susan Sontag and Ernest Hemingway.
Paring down is a recurring theme. From Kurt Vonnegut: "If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.” And Mark Twain: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
But then look at Nick Hornby's hilarious case for taking the time, space and words to tell a story, tell a joke, even if it means using *heavens!* adverbs:
“Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune, and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress…
Actually, when you think about it, not many novels in the Spare tradition are terribly cheerful. Jokes you can usually pluck out whole, by the roots, so if you’re doing some heavy-duty prose-weeding, they’re the first to go. And there’s some stuff about the whole winnowing process I just don’t get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words — entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I’m sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there’s nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound manly, back-breaking labor because it’s such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging. (It’s also why people who work in advertising put in twenty-hour days.) Go on, young writers — treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won’t mind!” — Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree
What do you think when you go back over a draft? Is it like clipping a bonsai? Or bushwhacking through the Amazon rainforest? Or is it feeling where the material is most alive, and then letting those characters and stories rip? What is revising like for you?
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