– Fall to pieces

In revising longer works, it’s easy to fall into the trap of endlessly polishing word choices and sentences, because they are small units that can be both held in the writer’s attention and worked on at once, and avoid dealing with the draft in its entirety.

That kind of fine labor, though, could be like running on a hamster wheel — it’s fun, it’s exercise, but you end up not too far from where you started.

For me, and I think for many writers, the hardest parts of revision are figuring out the big picture (“what’s my pressing question? theme? thesis?”); seeing how the pieces contribute to, or don’t contribute to, the whole; and sequencing the pieces in a scheme relevant to the big picture.

On and off, for months, I’ve been working on an unwieldy draft of an essay. It’s too long — 8600 words — for the journal I want to send it to, which has a word limit of 5000. When I read the draft from start to finish, it feels complete to me and every word precious.

So, the only smart thing to do is undo its completeness, which I did.

Draft in pieces

I cut it into pieces, based on a similar exercise I’ve done with students and on some remarks that journalist George Packer made to his audience at the Wesleyan University Writers Conference last June. About the structure of his own narratives, he has noticed that the “basic move is between scene and passage of analysis” and “sometimes both occur together.” In the image of my dismantled draft, the pieces in the grouping at the top are scene; the pieces that curve up from the bottom are passages of analysis and, for my purposes, reflection.

Yesterday I looked at each piece and sorted the pieces further: (1) ones relevant to my main idea, and (2) ones not relevant. This work went quickly.

Then I went back into the file for the draft, and I removed (and dumped into another document) all the irrelevant pieces. New word count: 5500.

I’m getting closer. Next step? I’ll lay those patches of paper out on the dining room table, and shuffle them around.

3 thoughts on “– Fall to pieces

  1. I love this exercise. I have persistent problems with structure and organization, and this exercise always helps me get a grasp on what ideas should go where.

  2. The weird thing is (and maybe this is not so weird) that, when I’m tutoring, I can see instantly the existing organization of a student’s paper and even how it might be improved. But, damn, I can’t see that with my own.

    A chronology of ideas (or effect) is really hard to pull off. This is why, I believe, the 5-paragraph essay is so attractive: it removes entirely the need for writers to consider the order and development of an argument.

  3. This is really smart. You spend all this time, precious, nail-bitten hours putting the mortar on your house only to find it unwieldy, or sagging, or ill-fitting. I love the breaking apart that this exercise allows you. A fresh perspective. And I think writer’s spend so much time — SO MUCH TIME — dealing with intangibles; I love any exercise that moves the words into three dimensions.

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