Revising an essay? Try this:
Underline the most significant sentence in each paragraph, one that evokes that section’s central meaning.
Or pick the sentence that is the most striking (in terms of imagery or ideas; you decide).
In a separate document, write the chosen sentences in order, creating paragraphs as (or if) needed.
This new piece is stark, with all the frills stripped away.
Now that you have the essence of your narrative, you can re-introduce passages that are absolutely necessary. Or, maybe this version is exactly what you were getting at all along!
In a five-minute freewrite, reflect on what emerged for you as you chose the sentences or read the stripped-down version of your original piece.
This exercise can be helpful when revising fiction or poetry, as well.
Writing requires a certain amount of solitude, to conceptualize, dream, draft, and revise. And it is not accomplished solely in the vacuum of an author’s imagination and focused scribbling.
A few months ago, I decided to join a writing group. Over the years, I’ve been a member of many such groups, some more supportive and interesting than others. After the first few sessions, I remembered what I value about these gatherings:
Talking about writing offers numerous opportunities to explore what moves, challenges, bores, or puzzles me, as a reader. This provides insights when I am drafting and revising my own work.
Sharing my writing reveals what readers see in my work. What do they like, wonder about, or find funny or dull? Am I conveying what I think I am? When group members make suggestions or express confusion, I can determine how – or if – their feedback will be incorporated in subsequent revisions.
Experiencing different genres heightens my creativity: For years, I had given up writing poetry (that’s a story for another time). While my primary genre is nonfiction, recently I’ve begun writing poems again. With a few exceptions, each of us writes in multiple genres. Listening to such variety helps to tune my ear. What makes that poetry and that prose? When does repetition shift from creating an emotionally moving tone to becoming stultifying? How much detail is too much? Is the dialogue believable for that character?
The tone of the group is supportive: Group members focus as much on what works as they do on what doesn’t. As a writer, I learn from both perspectives.
Each session, we spend a few minutes writing together, using various prompts, such as words chosen from a box or random lines from a book. We leave each session with a prompt. It’s fun listening to the different ways each writer uses the same words. Most recently, I wrote a piece that incorporates the names of paint colors found on paint sample cards.
Though each of us is at a different stage in our writing career – some of us have several publications, others a few or none – all are equal at the table.
Belonging to a writing group has been inspiring: I look forward to sharing my work and listening to others’ words. The prompts are a fun way to use my imagination. And writing with a group alleviates isolation.
If you are considering joining a writing group, think about the attributes that would be most helpful for you. Give the group a trial run, so that you can observe how members interact. For example: Do they talk about the strengths in a piece as well as offer relevant suggestions? Does each writer get equal time (or do one or two dominate the discussion)? Do they have fun with writing; for example, writing together using random and, maybe, ridiculous prompts?
Keep writing, alone and with others!
- You can’t help thinking, “I wrote that story 10 years ago. Why didn’t I try to publish it?”
- You wouldn’t have made the killer the best friend. It’s been done to death; pun intended.
- You can anticipate the next three words in nearly every line of dialogue.
- You wonder if the author intended to use that cliché. And that one. And that one.
- Because the protagonist’s name is Lindsay with an “a,” you find it difficult to take her seriously.
- You are bored by chapter 3, but continue to read: You are analyzing the mechanisms the author uses to maintain the reader’s attention.
- You anticipate that the book will end at page 245. It goes on for a hundred more pages.
- You are still bored at chapter 65 when the book, mercifully, ends.
- You are upset that you read every predictable word and you realize those hours are lost forever.
- You give props to the writer and publisher who had the gall – I mean courage – to bring the book to the reading public.
- You think, “I wrote that story 10 years ago. I could have gotten it published!
Ready for a writing coach to help you finally write that story? Contact me, Ruth Farmer: firstname.lastname@example.org; 802-377-3001
When I was a little girl, I used to draw in the blank pages of my mother’s books (I’m sure there is a name for those pages, but I don’t know what that is). She was an avid reader, so there were many blank canvases for my stick figures. This was a time when hardcovers were fairly inexpensive and practically given away through book clubs – 5 for $1, for example, if you signed up to receive one book a month.
Needless to say, my mother did not see this as art. I was defacing her books.
I was not a burgeoning artist. This was not a precursor to an artistic talent that grew into a career. I just liked to draw. I didn’t care if the art was beautiful by others’ standards. I just went for it.
At what point did perfection become my constant (and difficult) companion? It is likely that in school, drawing moved from a youthful pastime to an activity that was graded. I did not become an Artist.
Yet, so many years later, I still sketch and I have taken up collage. My artistic expressions have also included modern dance. After many years of comparing myself to The Real Artists, I now accept that sometimes expressing oneself is something to be done because it feels good, because not doing so makes your life feel empty. So these days, I am not concerned if the work is good. I just care that I take time to do it. As when I was a child, art emerges from my urge to create.
That urge carries over into my writing as well. The difference is that, while I never considered myself an artist or dancer or collagist, I do consider myself a writer. Naming myself this has often led to feeling that I have to measure up to standards established by someone other than me.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in conventions and quality, and creating something that can be seen as beautiful by someone other than myself. However, if I keep those external standards uppermost in my mind, as I am creating, I will never find that center, that well of imagination, that allows me to bring forth art that is Mine.
Perhaps, like me, you have always felt the urge to create. Maybe you didn’t have the materials or the support but you had the impulse. And though your creative impulses were discouraged – maybe even stamped down – by loved ones who just wanted you to Get Real, you still wrote, or painted, or danced or …
Today, you might feel that you don’t have enough education or support or money to take yourself seriously. If you did, you would ___(fill in the blank). I thought that for a long time and my creative impulses kept calling to me until I could no longer ignore them.
Maybe that is happening for you as well. Maybe you hear a sound in the distance. Like a bird or a flute or the whisper of the wind. It is your creative spirit saying, “Come out and play.”
Ready to work with a coach or editor to finally finish that book? Contact me at 802-377-3001 or email@example.com.
See my blog post “Five things to do when you don’t want to write.”
We’ve all had those moments when we don’t want to sit down and write. I don’t mean those times when we can’t, when the words don’t flow or seem gone to the big beyond. I mean when we just don’t want to sit there and write, not one more word.
Well, I give you permission to rise and walk away from the journal, or computer and do something else. Here are some things I do instead of writing, in no particular order.
Exercise: This need not be strenuous. Any movement shakes up the brain, warms the limbs, gets other parts of the body excited – or at least feeling like you love them. Walking, yoga, dancing. Something simple that does not require equipment is the best, although a pair of dumbbells might add a bit of spice. Move long enough to allow your thoughts to slip away from writing to whatever comes into your body.
Eat: something that nourishes. Or not.
Read: the most important thing is to not choose anything remotely related to what you are writing. That could send you into a spiral of unworthiness, guilt, and shame at the author’s ability to do what you at the moment are not doing.
Domestic chores: This is my second favorite, exercising being the first. Mind you, I am not a domestic goddess. Cleaning, dusting, or straightening things out usually make me feel anxious. But these activities yield tangible results – a sparkling sink, an organized sock drawer, and books off the floor and onto shelves – unlike the squiggles on a computer screen that lead to the big nowhere.
Netflix: see warning under “Read.”
Just as I was revising this piece, the alarm on my phone went off. It is a lovely tune that got me dancing from one room to the next*. My brain is clearer already. And having hit snooze, I anticipate another opportunity to stop writing.
Happy writing or not writing!
*In case you are interested, click on this link to the ringtone, “One Step Forward”
I am not ready to write. I’m not ready to process, to put onto paper my feelings and thoughts this morning. They are my thoughts. They are my feelings. They are floating in the ozone in amorphous wonder and delight and being free to be what they are and not nailed down, categorized, prettied up, and made to dance a dance that I can understand.
Sometimes words escape me, not just when I am speaking to others or when I am writing, revising, rethinking. They escape me like a recalcitrant puppy that will not heel, come, sit, or stay. They are not at that moment ready to yield to the containment of ritual, routine, or just the inability to accept such wild energy.
My thoughts are puppies, which I love. So why can’t I love these thoughts that are not able to land in the categories that I can understand? Right now, I know they are there and I know some are wild and some are just seeking a place to settle but not that place that I think they should land on. Even as I write this I don’t know for certain what it is I am saying but I know for certain that I love that I have the courage and openness to say it, this, and that. I don’t have to have a polished thought every time I open my mouth or write in my journal or type on this computer. There is a shine to them, a glow to them whether or not the grammar and direction and argument and focus are clear. That I can get out of my own way to say anything is a sign of growth for me.
A puppy has energy and wholeness and puppyhood. There are very few people who do not like puppies. They might fear them or fear for them, but they probably like them, simply for their unbridled and curious natures. Getting curious about my thoughts, allowing my thoughts to be thoughts of curiosity is not the easiest thing for me to do. I want to say, yes, you are so cute and funny and energetic and wild and now that I’ve acknowledged those wonderful traits, it is time to get real and get focused and to make sense.
Do puppies make sense? On some level they do and yet suddenly they sprint away to do who knows what. Suddenly they bare their teeth or jump in your lap or the lap of someone whom they don’t know. Sometimes they won’t eat or they gobble up your socks and the bugs attached to your spider plants. Sometimes they just do stuff that is unpredictable and we say to ourselves, how cute at the same time that we know, we absolutely know, that we must teach the puppy not to be so terribly spontaneous. We must align the puppy with the life that will keep him safest and healthiest. That is what we tell ourselves.
How to do that without damping down this energy? That is the question that I ask myself about my wild and unfocused and totally energized and spontaneous and amorphous thoughts: How do I cultivate them without blocking the energy that keeps new unbridled and innovative and unexpected thoughts from coming and receiving my full attention and love?
How do I retain my puppy self?
So on Monday, I spent the afternoon revising an essay on leadership, which is to appear in an anthology on pedagogy. The due date for the essay was … let’s just say, earlier. Much earlier.
I drafted the piece in February and spent weeks writing and rewriting, researching and rewriting, straying from the point and coming back.
I submitted the essay (late) and was asked to revise it. I left it on my desk for several days –many, many days! – thinking about how to approach this phase of revision. I re-read the essay and re-wrote it, confident that I had conveyed the points I was trying to make.
The editor asked me to revise the essay again.
When I submitted the draft on Monday, I was oh so tempted to add a plaintive note: “This is all I’ve got. If this version isn’t what you are looking for, I understand (Wah, wah, wah!). I’m sure I can get it published elsewhere” (Someone else will appreciate my writing).
I did not write the note. I discourage my students from offering such disclaimers before they read their pieces to an audience. “Let the work speak for itself,” I say.
Sometimes I follow my own advice.
I love to read. As a writer, reading is enjoyable and educational. Here are three books I’m in the midst of reading. I may provide an update once I’ve finished them.
Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield: In the first few pages, Pressfield offers valuable advice:
“The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give him something worthy of his gift to you.”
“switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer.”
I have just finished chapter 61, in which he explores the distinctly “American” story principles of Hollywood movies. Pressfield also talks about making a living. This book is a worthwhile read for anyone serious about building a career through artistic expression.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear: Elizabeth Gilbert’s perspective on creativity won’t appeal to a lot of folks. I find it refreshing. I just finished the chapter on permission, in which Gilbert explores the paradox of art as “absolutely meaningless” and “deeply meaningful.” Her basic premise (so far) is to lighten up and play. Works for me.
The Bones of Paris: I love mysteries. Laurie R. King’s lush narrative set in 1929 Paris seemed promising when I thumbed through the book. Private investigator Harris Stuyvesant is looking for a missing woman. So far the book is big on atmosphere and low on dramatic tension. Also, I really don’t care about any of the characters. Having stalled at chapter 17, the book has become an assignment: What techniques does King use to draw in the reader? When does atmospheric charm get in the way of the story? As a writer, I want to understand why I find such a well-written book so dull.
By switching between the perspectives of a writer and a reader, I can discover what works and what doesn’t, while indulging in one of my primary pleasures, reading.
What are you reading?