Friday, July 15, 2011

Revising Your Writing

Your best writing does not come in your first draft.  While students have for years cranked out last-minute assignments, with many even managing to get away with decent grades when doing so, any writing can be improved from that initial effort.  Indeed, I now look back at some of my "A" papers from my undergraduate years and cringe.  Adequate?  Yes--but my best work involved, and all of my work now involves, a careful revision process.

Revision is not a one-pass work over.  The best, most in-depth revision process involves layers of work.  Think of the process as a funnel, beginning broadly and ending with a careful, focused fine-tuning.  In other words, get the basic, structural and developmental elements right.  I call this the S.P.S. approach: Structure, Paragraph, Sentence.  While it might better read Structure, Stanza, Line for a poem, the main thrust remains the same: start with the big picture, and then narrow your focus as you refine your work.


In an essay, this relates primarily to the order in which you present your argument.  Have you created a coherent, cohesive argument?  Do your thoughts build on each other, moving inexorably to your conclusion?  Have you set it up in a way that makes sense?  In a novel or short story, this will relate to the sequence of events, to the relation of them to each other in a way that works.  And in a poem, you should build a structure that complements the theme of your poem.

One way to test for this is to outline your work.  We typically think of outlines as laying out our thought processes before we draft--and this can prove valuable in organizing thoughts before we write.  Afterward, though, outlining what you have written, as opposed to what you plan or expect to write beforehand, can reveal structural gaps that may be difficult to identify just by re-reading what you've written.  Particularly if the text is dense or nuanced, this bare-bones structural map can clarify problems your writing has obfuscated.

Once you identify potential gaps in your thought process or story, fill them in.  Find the argument that answers a currently unanswered objection, or add in the detail that helps your story make sense.  Complete the architecture of your writing.


Once you have a cohesive structure in place, begin fleshing out the writing that carries that structure.  In an essay, this usually means answering questions: How?  Why?  So what?  Paragraph by paragraph, ensure that your point carries the writer back to your thesis.  How does your point apply?  Why is what you wrote true, valid, or important?  Why should anyone reading your essay care?

In a story's paragraphs, the focus will be on packing the paragraph densely.  This may not mean fully-developed thoughts in each paragraph, as you need in an essay.  It does, however, require you to decide whether everything your paragraph must show is on display.  Have you engaged the reader's senses?  Is your character true to his/her personality, socioeconomic or historical situation, etc.?  Or, in a poem, has your stanza meant something, something that deserves an encapsulated stanza unto itself, connected to your poem's theme but distinct in some way?  Build your writing, flesh it out, engorge it.


Finally, your structure is strong and the ideas and thoughts are developed.  Now, play with the language.  Go sentence by sentence, or line by line in a poem.  Does your sentence structure strengthen or diminish your writing?  Does every word matter?  Does your punctuation achieve the proper pacing for your writing?  Every phrase, every word, every comma should accomplish something for you.  Excise extraneous adverbs and adjectives.  Tighten phrases.  Eliminate passive voice (unless you have a good reason to use it).  Give your reader moments to pause when needed, and force that reader to hold on and fly with you when it helps you.  And make sure the sentences transition well from one to the next.

A Final Word

I have laid out an onerous process, but one that will give power to your writing.  The important takeaway: do this in order.  If you begin at the sentence level, your work may not matter when you re-create your structure.  Answering the middle questions follows from what you are trying to build in the first phase.  Take the time to make your writing the best it can be.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Focusing Your Poetry

A previous entry in this blog discussed using a thesis to focus an academic essay.   This entry concerns focusing poetry: keeping a poem on track, tied to an idea or image and making it accessible to a reader.

I had the good fortune of watching a poetry slam in New York City a couple of months ago, and I saw tremendous examples of the importance of focusing poetry as well.  These examples included poets who did so very well--most notably Will Evans, who is somehow a Columbus, Ohio poet whom I had to travel to New York to see.  Strange world.  It also included the other sort of examples: strange poems meandering through random images and themes to arrive someplace, a place generally indefinable but inevitably loud--or, more precisely, arriving at some penultimate, loud place followed by a whispered denouement that may or may not bear any relation to the bombastic climax.

Importantly, good poetry often concerns good thoughts, ideas, feelings, or experiences.  This does not mean, though, that poetry IS that good thought, idea, feeling, or experience.  Rather, it provides a verbal expression of the thought, idea, feeling, or experience, in a way that connects a reader to what it is expressing.  It provides a linguistic bridge that begins with the experience, and passes through the writer to the reader.  This matters; the poet's first words tend not to be his or her best, and by recognizing that the words are separate from the "heart," the "soul," or even the mind, the poet can focus on what counts: getting the expression clear, precise, and meaningful for the reader.

To build and strengthen this expression, the poem needs an anchor.  This may be an image built over the course of the poem, a central concept strengthened by metaphor(s), a place, or really anything, so long as the entire poem relates and ties into that idea.  Think of it as an unspoken thesis statement.  If one statement can't be tied to every line, every word in the poem, then the poem lacks cohesion.

Importantly, this does not mean a poem cannot hold a wide range within itself.  An example is "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman, which covers pretty much the entire universe--but ties that entire universe to the poet's sense of self.  It remains cohesive despite its length and reach.

To ensure your poem does this, then, write down the central concept of the poem, and then try to connect every discrete image, every thought or nuance, to that central concept.  If you can do so, chances are your poem is cohesive.  While this does not in itself mean a poem is "good," it takes an important step toward allowing the poem to be so.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Few Words on Writer's Block

Writers in all genres have complained of writer's block, that nefarious condition in which one finds oneself entirely unable to create.  We sit down, and distractions overwhelm, inspiration fails us, or we simply can't bring ourselves to care enough to write--or, can't bring ourselves to write what we sat down feeling we needed to write.

One school of thought deems this condition bunk.  The problem, following this school, is not a mysterious condition that renders us unable to write, but rather a symptom of a writer's lack of focus.  This certainly holds some truth.  Even so, writers should understand as well as anyone that perception of a problem means the existence of that problem.  Whether the problem existed before the writer perceived it is irrelevant.

Thus, whether writer's block is all in the writer's head or a problem with the writer's head, steps to work through it become important.  What works best will depend on the situation and the writer.  So, find what works best for you and go with it.

One solution that often works with creative writing is, when unable to write about what you want, write about what you can.  In other words, if you are stuck on a story idea, or a next step, look around you.  Write a description of your coffee mug, or the sensation of the coffee (or water, wine, iced tea, arsenic, or whatever you are drinking) passing over your lips, splashing on your tongue, trickling down your esophagus.  Write about the way the light moves through the slants in your blinds, the way shadows persist in one corner.  Describe your headache, or your backache.  Find something, in other words, and write.  You will soon find a way to draw what you're doing into your story, or perhaps to create a poem from it.  Fix on concrete details, and build from there.

A second solution, perhaps the most popular for essay writers but certainly viable for all writing, is the "brainstorm": begin writing ideas as they pop into your head, ideally without filtering.  From there, trace the connections between ideas, making a path you can use as a rough guide to follow.  Usually the starting point is a topic, or perhaps a thesis sentence if you've developed that already.  Generally speaking, though, you should free yourself from trying to think of "good" ideas, or even overtly salient points.  Once you have the ideas on paper, you can then sort through them.  Decide what is usable, or what you can rebuild or connect to something more powerful.  But once again, you are putting ideas into words--which is what writing is really all about.

Finally, a more radical notion, but one that works best for some writers: walk away.  I find my ideas often arrive during exercise, during cleaning, or even in the shower.  If you are like this, get away from the keyboard, legal pad, or whatever it is against which you find yourself beating your head during your vain effort to create.  But if you choose this route, do so with purpose.  Make an appointment to return once your head has cleared, and stick to it.  By doing so, you are clearing your head to allow you to write, rather than escaping to something else and avoiding your work.

Any or all of these can work.  Writer's block exists, whether it is real or not.  Find a way through it or around it, and keep writing!