Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

A wall, but not that wall

Way back in school–and I’m talking elementary school, mostly, so it was a long time ago–our teachers tried to impose a certain degree of structure on how we wrote. Whether it was an essay or a short story, we were introduced to the concept of writing and revision. We would write up a ‘rough draft’, get it back from the teacher with notes and corrections (a LOT of spelling and punctuation, and confusing of things like ‘your’ and ‘you’re’, ‘their’ and ‘there’, and ‘then’ and ‘than’), and then turn in the ‘final copy’. At that level, I recall that ‘final copy’ was pretty much presented as ‘copy your paper over but correct those mistakes when you do’.

Even back then, I was a bit of a wingman. I recall how I would sit at my desk, first draft to my left, fresh sheet of paper to my write. But instead of straight copying the first draft (with corrections, of course), I would rewrite almost straight out of my head. I was generally a pretty good speller back in elementary school, probably better than I am now, so I didn’t make a lot of mistakes of that type. I did always have crummy handwriting, though, so maybe I had to write a second final copy to make sure it was legible, I don’t know.

I can’t say for sure why I did it that way. I guess it always felt write to just go from brain to page instead of from paper to paper. There’s often a better way to say something than the way you just wrote it, right? It never really caused a problem. I don’t remember getting any ‘final copy’ back from my teachers with the 1970s and 80s equivalent of ‘WTF???’ scrawled across it in bright red ink (we also used to have to staple our rough drafts to our final copy when we turned it in), so I presumably never changed things all that much, and maybe my teachers were just glad that I was embracing the concept of multiple drafts, I don’t know.

I still do things this way. I’m on what is probably technically the fourth draft of my WiP. It went through two drafts before it went out to beta readers, then it went through another, and now it’s going through a fourth and (hopefully) final revision before it meets the cold, cruel world of querying. It’s gone well, and after a slow start, it’s picked up speed. In the last week I’ve gotten through 95 pages and cut about 1800 words of excess verbiage. Yay, me.

Last Wednesday, I hit a wall. On opening the manuscript to where I had left off the day before, I encountered a 500-word section that brought me to a screeching halt. Unlike most of the rest of the manuscript, which has been through three revisions, this was something new, created by my head while I was supposed to be lightly revising the last time. In essence, I was looking at a 500-word ‘rough draft’ stuck in the middle of something that is third, fourth draft, maybe even ‘final copy’, and, like many ‘rough draft’ level items, it needed work. Badly. I know exactly what the passage is supposed to do, but after 30 minutes of trying to figure out how to make it do what I wanted it to do, I just cut the whole thing and called it a day. After close to a week of advancing 30 pages a day, I stopped on the same page I started on.*

I suspect this is what makes editing and revision so difficult for many people, including yours truly. There always something you can add, some better way to say something, some subtle alteration that can really make your writing pop. But every time you add something new to a manuscript, you’re adding something raw, wild, unpolished, something that needs to be looked at again and fixed up to match its setting. I’d say one of these days, I’ll figure out how to do this writing thing right, but I’ve been doing it this way since grade school. Seems like a bit of a habit.

*Oh, by the way, after dismantling the wall, I buzzed through 77 more pages that week, so it wasn’t much of an obstacle once I decided it didn’t need to be there.

3 Responses

  1. I hate it when I come to a scene or paragraph and wonder, "What the hell was I thinking???" Yeah, deleting it is usually the solution. Because if I don't know what it is, how is the reader supposed to know???

  2. I do that too, write something new in the middle of all that revision. Ugh. My brain is always working on problems that likely do not need fixed, I just get it in my head that it needs "changed."

    You are making fabulous progress Jeff. Good job!

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