Can you get it just right the first time? Colm Toibin and John McPhee reflect on the editing process

Friday, September 11, 2015

The reason it can take me so long to write a single sentence is because I care so much, even in the very first draft, about that single sentence.

This, many might say, is a writerly handicap. Just get the story down, they say. Return to it later, they say. Trust the process.

I do return, later. I do write over that sentence, away from that sentence, disappointed with that sentence. But every single time I write a sentence, or rewrite it, or reclaim it from the trash can, I am hoping for nothing less than sentence that is excellently good.

Writing well, every time, is an eternal hope of mine. I have not cracked that egg.

(Even at the very end of the process, when the book is in galleys, I discover sentences that don't work. Or, an editor with a keen eye questions me about passages that had long seemed set in stone. This just happened, in fact, with THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU. We were in galleys. We thought (after finding several troublesome galley matters) that we were done. But Taylor Norman, reading the book with fresh eyes, stopped, thought, and asked: Do you want your "really" here? Is that double "rappel" intentional? Can't we relax her speech on this page? What do you mean, the wind is incidental? Can she call her mother "Mom"? Look. I wrote this book. I'd read it dozens of times. And I didn't see this stuff. It's an ongoing process, refining one's work. And I suspect we're never really done.)

Over the last 24 hours I've read two favorite writers—novelist Colm Toibin and nonfiction genius John McPhee—on the art of getting it right the first time, and then looking again. I share their perspectives here. I learn from both.

Here Hope Whitmore interviews Colm Toibin for the Barnes and Noble Review on, among other things, process:

BNR: I’m interested in your writing process, because much of the power, particularly in Nora, comes from what isn’t said. There is a lot of inference — with her relationship with her mother — for instance. So I was wondering how you refined this, what is your editing process like?
CT: Oh, there’s no editing process. I mean, you just write down what’s needed — what you think is needed. And while I may change words, or pluck things, I mean not much. There’s no actual editing process.
BNR: So you don’t write then cut?
CT: No, you see, that won’t work, because if you don’t get it down right the first time, I mean — it doesn’t mean you don’t have to do editing or re-reading, re-writing, but not editing; meaning I’ll write this long and later on I’ll make it short, that won’t work. That won’t work.
I mean, well, there are writers who do drafts, knowing there will be later drafts, and that works for them, but I don’t do that. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be later drafts, but I write as though I will never get another chance.

Now here is John McPhee in a New Yorker piece called" Omission: Choosing what to leave out." He too is talking about the importance of selection, in the first paragraph. In the second (non-contiguous) paragraph, he is reflecting on greening, a process he teaches his students:

Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. Forget market research. Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way....

Green 4 does not mean lop off four lines at the bottom, I tell them. The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed. Easier with some writers than with others. It’s as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train—or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for reasons of aesthetics or plant pathology, not to mention size. Do not do violence to the author’s tone, manner, nature, style, thumbprint. Measure cumulatively the fragments you remove and see how many lines would be gone if the prose were reformatted. If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.
Toibin and McPhee—two writers working two genres—are, in different ways, talking about the same thing: caring. There's a discipline to writing that may not seem so glamorous. There's more to this than just concocting story or throwing out an inventive phrase. We select, we refine, we work to get it right. Perfection may be out of reach. But we're lost when our commitment fades.


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