#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.

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#7: Working on Broken Drafts

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Dear Story Nurse,

Most of the writing I do these days is scripts for a video essay series I do on YouTube. These essays tend to be between 2000-5000 words, and I am trying (on occasion, successfully) to release one every month. I am quite happy with how the series has come along, and I think I’ve become pretty good at both drafting and revising my scripts to a point that satisfies me.

The big exception is when I grow too attached to a draft that isn’t working.

My current example: I started the script for my next video about nine months ago. I was tackling a fairly complex subject that was hard to make any single, definitive statement about, so I opted to write the script more as a series of micro-essays—taking one facet of the subject, writing 1-3 paragraphs about it, and then tackling another, related subject, in the hopes that viewing it kaleidoscopically would help viewers understand the complexity of the subject.

In the end, that structure didn’t work. I didn’t have as much to say as I thought I would, so I didn’t have enough angles to “come at it from many angles.” But what I’d written was arguably the best individual paragraphs I’d ever written, and, as I tried to start over, I found it very difficult to let go of all these well-written, standalone passages. After trying to restructure the essay into something more linear and thesis-based without changing too much of the text, I shelved the script and worked on something else.

Several months later, I came back to it, with some better ideas about how to structure it, but I still couldn’t let go of a lot of the text, which didn’t fit well into the new structure. And when I tried to write new text that adequately fit the structure, I felt it didn’t meet the quality of the old draft. So, again, I shelved the script and worked on something else.

Months later, I’m finally finishing the script, and did manage to let go of a lot while keeping some of my favorite bits, and the whole thing is working a lot better. But the only way I’ve managed to let go of the old drafts has been to repeatedly step away for months at a time, which is at odds with my attempt to keep a schedule. Each time it’s a struggle, because I have to find a way to get excited about the subject all over again. I also worry that I’m overthinking things; if I had simply made and released the original, kaleidoscopic version of the video, would anyone but me have been bothered by its structure?

This is my most extreme example, but I run into this problem fairly often. So I suppose this is a two-part question:

A) Broadly speaking, do you have any advice for letting go of drafts that you are happy with when you recognize that, in a fundamental way, they don’t work?

B) More specifically, do you have advice for either polishing an imperfect draft or swiftly gutting and rebuilding it when you’re trying to meet a deadline? Does the advice for A) still apply? Can it be adapted? And how do you get yourself re-invested in a subject that’s giving you trouble when you don’t have time to switch to a different topic?

—Old Draft Romantic (he/him)

Dear Old Draft Romantic,

I think every creative writer has some version of this question sooner or later—and it’s usually sooner, because this is one of those skills that you have to exercise to make it stronger, like a muscle. Over time, as you write more, you will learn to recognize which ideas can be developed easily, which can be developed painstakingly, and which can’t be developed. And you will learn more about your own process of development, which will help make both easy and difficult development go more smoothly. I can give you some suggestions and shortcuts, but they’re no substitute for practice. So keep going with your writing and don’t give up, even when it gets discouraging! As you persevere, you will become more discerning and more efficient, and “waste” less and less time. It’s not really wasted, because you’re building your skills, but it can feel that way if it produces work that’s not usable for a particular purpose.

Let’s talk about that purpose.

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