The rewards of revision: writers on writing as re-writing

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It’s been said before and will be said again; but one of the most – if not the most – important parts of writing is re-writing. Writing often isn’t about inspiration or waiting for your muse to arrive – it’s about getting down to it and finally actually writing that novel you’ve been working on – and then fine-tuning it. Writing is about finding your way into the moment and sustaining the energy for as long as you can effectively and in the rhythm of your narrative. Then it’s about checking what you’ve produced and making sure you succeeded – and even where you’ve done well, it’s about looking at your work in the cold light of day and trying to improve it even further (for example, by cutting out clichéd phrases like the cold light of day).

Here, for you today, we have brought you a selection of the most delicious quotes on rewriting and revision from some of the finest writers of the last 100 years. Enjoy!

Ernest Hemingway

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“The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.

[…]

Revision takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty… Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.”

Zadie Smith

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“When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second — put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal — but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.

[…]

You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.”

Stephen King

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“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)…I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’

Truman Capote

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“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Kurt Vonnegut

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“Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

Donald Hall

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“The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.

[…]

The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along. Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away. If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good.”

Helen Dunmore

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“Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.”

In nuce, then, writing is two steps: the first draft, and the second, repeated on and on, ad infinitum until the process simply cannot be sustained (or until you die and leave your unpublished manuscripts in a loft somewhere in the hope that a future generation of your grandchildren will uncover the books, find something meaningful in it and whack it up on the internet in an eBook). But the important thing to remember is that rewriting is, in so many ways, not too dissimilar from the writing part. You’re just taking existing writing and making it better.

Now, what’s so hard about that?

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So beautiful – Donald Trump poetry

I’m so beautiful and good looking

That reminds me of another beautiful thing I’ve seen

Beautiful hats

Beautiful coal

Look at these scissors

I have never seen scissors that look this beautiful before

 

Beauty and elegance, whether in a woman or a building,

Comes down to one thing:

You don’t give a shit if a girl can play the violin

Like the greatest violinist in the world

You want to know:

What does she look like?

~ Anonymous 

A note on the above poem: 

All the lines of ‘So beautiful’ are taken, verbatim, from Donald Trump speeches, Tweets, interviews or recorded comments. For a fully referenced version of the poem please send the NITRB team an email!

The wit of the bard: 100 of Shakespeare’s greatest insults

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With recent news that a new copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio has been discovered on a Scottish island, we’ve been thinking of ways to celebrate the works of the bard. With his 400th Anniversary fast approaching (fortunately you only have to remember one date for both his birth and his death – 23rd April), we racked our brains and thought it was high time we brought to your attention this wonderful infographic of Shakespearean insults.

Created by Charley Chartwell, and available for the very reasonable price of just over £20, you can purchase a copy of this Grand Taxonomy of Shakesperean Insults here.

The wonderful poster will come in handy in this modern age of Twittersphere rants, rages and online trolls: what better way to deal with someone telling you to impolitely go away, than by calling them a canker blossom or a viperous worm? We certainly can’t think of any.

Indeed, your comeback repertoire is in line for a nifty upgrade, where you can take Shakespeare’s dagger-like wit and make it your own. The poster features 100 of his greatest put downs and zingers.

Divided into various sections – including ‘personal attributes’ (try “thou knotty pated fool”), ‘bodily qualities’ (try “thou thing of no bowles, thou”), and ‘professions’ (in an age of political scandal, “scurvy politician” has a certain ring to it) – you can easily choose which retort is most appropriate for whatever situation you find yourself in.

Featuring lines from a variety of Shakespeare’s plays, including Richard III, Henry VI, All’s Well that Ends Well and Hamlet, we thought we’d pick out a few of our favourites, which we’ve listed here:

“Go, ye giddy goose!” – Henry IV, Part I

“There’s no more faith in thee than a stewed prune!”Henry IV, Part I

“You heedless jolt-heads” – The Taming of the Shrew

You sanctimonious pirate” – Measure for Measure

“Thou damned and luxurious mountain goat” – Henry V

“You canker blossom!” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

But of course, we want to know what you think! Which of these will you be using in your next online trolling battle, or quick-witted response when Muriel from Accounting tells you your company expenses form is all out of whack? Let us know in the comments below!

David Foster Wallace: the teacher’s spiel

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David Foster Wallace. Photograph via Wikipedia Commons

By now, David Foster Wallace has acquired a quasi-mythical status among followers of both literature and pop-culture. That there has recently been a film made about him, The End of the Tour, starring Jason Segal, has only fuelled the fascination and discussion that follows the late writer around. He is certainly no longer seen as “just a penis with a thesaurus”, as John Updike dismissed him in a 1997 review.

With his 2005 speech to students at Kenyon College, This is Water, having gone viral, and a plethora of articles and blogs written about him, it seems we just can’t get enough of a man we have elevated from tortured literary genius admired by an intense cult following into a huge presence in our cultural and public consciousness – a man seen by some as a sort of modern literary saint; a professor of sustaining wisdom who is there to shine a light to guide our way forward, and also who can help us make sense of a world, which so often seems senseless.

But what was he actually like as a teacher, as a professor? His various novels and essay collections aside – we gain intriguing insights through the collection of interviews Wallace took part in that are available online. And we can now gain an extraordinary look at what those students he taught might have encountered, via the course syllabus he wrote for the class he taught at Pomona College in 2005 – available to us all via Scribd.

DFW Syllabus

We totally recommend you check out the full text, but we thought we’d pick out some of our favourite bits, including what Wallace describes as the “basic course spiel”:

“The goals of [this course] are to survey certain important forms of modern literature […] and to introduce you to some techniques for achieving a critical appreciation of literary art. “Critical appreciation” means having smart, sophisticated reasons for liking whatever literature you like, and being able to articulate those reasons for other people, especially in writing. Vital for critical appreciation is the ability to “interpret” a piece of literature, which basically means coming up with a cogent, interesting account of what a piece of lit means, what it’s trying to do to/for the reader, what technical choices the author’s made in order to try and achieve the effects she wants, and so on. As you can probably anticipate, the whole thing gets very complicated and abstract and hard, which is one reason why entire college departments are devoted to studying and interpreting literature.”

Some other gems:

“There is no such thing as ‘falling a little behind’ in the course reading; either you’ve done your homework or you haven’t.”

Or:

“Our class can’t really function if there isn’t student participation – it will become just me giving a half-assed ad-lib lecture for 90 minutes, which (trust me) will be horrible in all kinds of ways.”

It’s also fascinating that Wallace tackles the question of himself as teacher head on in this syllabus. He writes: “[I am] not a professional literary scholar. In fact, though my job title at the college says “Professor of English”, I am not a professor, because I do not have a Ph.D.”

And, in an admonishing statement, he also notes that his experience as a teacher is limited – in fact is something he is essentially learning as he goes along: “There may be a certain amount of pedagogical clunkiness about this section of [the course]. You will, in effect, be helping me learn how to teach this class.”

Yet there’s no doubt that Wallace takes his teaching seriously – and for anyone who likes to think of him as the sort of spiritual mentor or teacher you might find in the swamps of Dagobar, think again. Wallace warns students: “I draw no distinction between the quality of one’s ideas and the quality of those ideas’ verbal expression, and I will not accept sloppy, rough-draftish, or semiliterate college writing. Again, I am absolutely not kidding. If you won’t or can’t devote significant time and attention to your written work, I urge you to drop [the course] and save us both a lot of grief.”

Whether we like it or not, David Foster Wallace sits securely within the epicentre of our culture. There is no shortage of “virtue signalling” carried out these days when we discuss modern society – and there is an eagerness often encountered by people keen to show they know about him (and perhaps even have Infinite Jest – read or otherwise – on their bookshelves).

Yet Wallace would perhaps never himself thought of himself as the teacher or guide that we have made him become – and this syllabus provides us with intimate, tangible glimpses of that.

 

Writing tips from writers

So. You want to be a writer. You’ve looked in detail at the alternatives – the refined meals in the company of elegant people; socialising with high society; going places; doing things; paying bills; eating food not made in a tin can – and you’ve decided it just ain’t for you. You’re the next Carver, the next Atwood, the next Tolstoy. You look down on EL James and nod seriously during long debates about the use of the semi-colon. You enjoy – perhaps a little too much – the smell of books; and you get a strange feeling every time you hold a pen to paper, as though in that moment you could sit there for eternity, crafting words from your imagination, pouring your thoughts out onto the page. And because of this, you’ve concluded that you’re ready to get writing.

Ah! But there’s a catch, isn’t there. Whenever you sit down, clear a desk, plonk that picture of Hemingway holding a gun in front of you for ‘motivation’, and get ready to write, you find yourself with a sudden urge to do the vacuuming, or take a stroll around the local park – complete with drug users squatting beneath a children’s slide – for ‘inspiration’. It’s time to admit it; you’re stuck. You’ve caught the most dreadful lurgy of all! Writer’s block.

Though not as terrifying an ailment as housemaid’s knee, hearing the diagnosis can hit even the most enthusiastic aspiring writers hard. But fear not. As with so many maladies, the first step to recovery from WB is acceptance. They even do WB Anonymous meetings now, we hear.

But how does one recover from WB? Aside from the well-known prescription, ‘Read; write; edit. Repeat’, we think it can prove pretty valuable to hear from writers themselves on how they actually go about doing this so-called ‘writing’.

To such ends, we’ve very kindly gathered a set of #WritingTips: from writers; for writers. We hope you find them useful!

Writing isn’t about getting laid, all right? Stephen King

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 “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

The nitty gritty from Cormac McCarthy

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“I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.”

Stop while the going’s good! Hemingway

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“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.” 

Don’t waste your money on creative writing schools or courses – Chinhua Achebe
Chinua Achebe, obituaries

“I don’t really know about [the value of being taught creative writing] to the student. I don’t mean it’s useless. But I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to teach me how to write. That’s my own taste. I prefer to stumble on it. I prefer to go on trying all kinds of things, not to be told, This is the way it is done. Incidentally, there’s a story I like about a very distinguished writer today, who shall remain nameless, who had been taught creative writing in his younger days. The old man who taught him was reflecting about him one day: I remember his work was so good that I said to him, Don’t stop writing, never stop writing. I wish I’d never told him that. So I don’t know. I teach literature. That’s easy for me. Take someone else’s work and talk about it.”

On revisions and the rhythms of a story – Alice Munro

Alice Munro wins Man Booker International Prize

“I’ve often made revisions at that stage that turned out to be mistakes because I wasn’t really in the rhythm of the story anymore. I see a little bit of writing that doesn’t seem to be doing as much work as it should be doing, and right at the end I will sort of rev it up. But when I finally read the story again it seems a bit obtrusive … There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.”

Be practical – Margaret Atwood

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“Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.”

Don’t worry about swearing – James Kelman

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“People can use swear words to emphasise the beauty of something – so it’s not really a swear word at all. If you say something is ‘fucking beautiful’, how can it be swearing, because you’re emphasising the beauty of something. If so-called swear words should only be used when appropriate, well what do you mean, ‘when appropriate’? I was in my 20s before I even realised the word ‘fuck’ had to do with a sexual act for some people. It was never used in that way for myself, and none of my community used it in that way.”

Don’t start out writing novels (they take too long) – Ray Bradbury

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“The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories.  If you write one short story a week, doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing. And at the end of the year you have 52 short stories. And I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”

Trust in your ability to say what you want – Kafka

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I am not of the opinion that one can ever lack the power to express perfectly what one wants to write or say. Observations on the weakness of language, and comparisons between the limitations of words and the infinity of feelings, are quite fallacious.”