Story Hospital

#11: Revision Requires Letting Go

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a longtime journalist (mostly editing but often reporting and writing), and I struggle to get far enough away from my words to edit my first draft—I often submit a draft that I’ve revised but is still twice as long as commissioned.

I have no problem editing others’ words, but after I’ve put in the work to report, distill, and write an article, I can no longer read it clearly enough to decide where to make structural changes, what information is too much, and so on.

Maybe this is a problem all writers have? Maybe it’s just a matter of letting the draft sit for a day or two before I revise and submit (but I’m often on tight deadlines and that’s not always an option). I’d love to hear what other writers do to distance themselves from the words they’ve put down in order to self-edit—it’d be really helpful not just in my reporting but also in my wishlist of fiction writing.

—Too Close (he/him)

Dear Too Close,

I don’t think this is a problem all writers have, but it’s definitely a problem lots of writers have. There are very few arts or crafts where an important part of creation is destroying part of what you’ve created. Even sculptors don’t have to make the marble before they start chipping it away. This is why you hear “kill your darlings” so often—not because any phrase you fall in love with is inherently not worth keeping around, but because we have to accustom ourselves to wielding the red pen on the same work we spent so much time sweating out. It can be very emotionally and psychologically difficult to do that.

It sounds like you identify closely with your work. A few weeks ago I wrote about that in “You Are Not Your Work,” and I recommend looking over the exercises and suggestions there, especially the ones on ephemerality. You could even go so far as to take some clips of your own finished work and set them on fire or dissolve them in water or turn them into paper airplanes and fling them out a 20th-storey window (all with appropriate safety precautions, of course).

There are some things you can do before you start writing that will help you prepare for later revising:

And while you’re writing:

Finally, when you’re revising:

I second your call for other writers to chime in with comments—what helps you make the cuts your work needs?

Happy writing, and best of luck revising!


Story Nurse

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