Good revision cannot occur until you fall out of love with a piece. Time and distance are essential.
The second I read it I knew it was a winner.
To fall out of love with a piece of work, you’ve first got to fall in love with it. How and when does that happen?
I can only give my experience. In the early days, I felt an attachment to almost everything I wrote. I thought it was precious, important, saleable and that it would, if not change the world, at least change the world of the reader. Obviously, when you’re a beginner, the ‘write about what you know’ maxim is one you stick to a lot, and what you know is often what you love, and what you love feels personal and close to you. Often it is you, if you’re writing first person pieces.
With time and perspective – and rejections – that feeling gradually ebbed away over the years – helped by editors commissioning pieces in areas I knew little about – but when you’re starting out, it’s hard to know that it won’t be like this forever. How to speed along the process?
If you find you’re falling for what you’ve written or what you’re writing, there are a number of ways you can try to cool it off.
Find someone who is not going to love it – and show them it. If you’re particularly brave, ask them to tear it apart. If not, just ask them to critique it. That’s what my students essentially do when they submit work to me. I have no emotional investment in their assignments – which is the way it should be. This may sound cold, but the detachment is necessary to give good, fair, constructive positive and negative feedback. Many new writers’ work is under-revised, and I will often kick off the process by cutting superfluous words and sentences – occasionally paragraphs, typically at the beginning of articles – and making other suggestions which may necessitate considerable rewrites. Someone telling you the baby you love isn’t quite as cute as you’d imagined will, perhaps, make you defensive and annoyed at first, but when you’ve cooled down enough to ask ‘Hm … what if they’re right?’ – you’re on your way to falling out of love – and towards good revision.
Another way is to walk away. Put the piece in a drawer, metaphorical or otherwise. I know all about proverbial absence and fondness, but your heart won’t play ball if you find something else to fall for – in other words, you start writing something new. And if the same thing happens with the new piece, do the same with that. How many babies can you love at once? How much love do you have to go around?
When you eventually get back to your first love, you’ll feel a little more ruthless, I promise, and ready to take the scalpel to your work. It really helps you if you learn to do this. Most new writers over-write. I’ve said it before and say it regularly to students: challenge every word you write to earn its keep. Is it essential? If not, cut it. There is plenty more to editing and revising than cutting, of course, and I hope you’ll find past Mistakes useful in that regard, such as Mistake No. 68.
I’m sure there are other ways to approach the editing process for work you’re particularly proud and fond of. Writers, both new and old, over to you …