His email was clever and funny. So too (I thought) was my response. I put the two together and sent it to my editor as a witty brief for publication in this little blog.
“I think this is pretty clever,” I wrote, “but I may be kidding myself. I know that sometimes I’m too close to my stuff to know.”
She wrote back: “You’re kidding yourself.”
Here’s the thing: I’ve been trying to “become a writer” since I was in grammar school. I’ve published more than two dozen books and more than a thousand essays. For the last 17 years, I’ve been writing every day. And yet 90% of what I write is garbage.
By garbage I mean not worth saving, let alone publishing.
Today, thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever to become a published writer. If you can’t get your work published by any one of the tens of thousands of websites that publish content every day, you can create your own website and self-publish.
But that presents a problem. It’s easier than ever to publish garbage.
In the “old days,” it was difficult to have your work accepted for publication. And if you did, you still had to go through a gauntlet of revisions mandated by an editor – someone whose job was to make sure no garbage went to press.
But these days, very little revising is being done. And that’s because most writing is published without the benefit of a good editor.
I happen to have one. She’s been editing my work – my business essays, my books, my fiction and my poetry – for more than 25 years. I’m lucky. Most writers don’t have that benefit.
What if you don’t? What can you do?
You can try to edit and revise your own work, but it isn’t easy.
One of the best books on writing that no one ever heard of is Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg.
If you are a writer you will treasure every page of this book. This is what he has to say about the difficulty of editing one’s own work:
The problem most writers face isn’t writing.
That includes noticing language.
The fundamental act of revision is literally becoming
conscious of the sentence,
Seeing it for what it is, word for word, as a shape, and
in relation to all the other sentences in the piece.
This is surprisingly hard to do at first
Because our reading habits are impatient and extractive.
And because we’ve been blinded to the actuality of
Its physical substance –
By the pursuit of meaning.
The very nature of reading encourages us to believe
we’re looking through the prose to the worlds on the other
side of the ink.
The familiarity with which we know our own lives is
Writing is a special instance of that.
In responding to your own prose, you’re responding in
some sense to yourself,
And no matter how hard you look, you’re almost invis-
ible to yourself,
Camouflaged by familiarity.
One basic strategy that Klinkenborg recommends is to become “a stranger to what you’ve written.” And one way to do that – as recommended by Ovid more than two thousand years ago – is to put away what you’ve written for a long time (ideally seven years). Then, when you read it again, it will seem new because you’ll have forgotten what you wrote.
My memory is so poor these days I don’t have to wait years. Months are often enough.
A more practical strategy from Klinkenborg is to read your work aloud. Read as clearly as you can, as if your intention is to communicate the meaning to someone that is listening. (Or, if you actually have someone nearby whose opinion you trust, you can read it aloud to him or her.)
By doing this, any inconsistencies, hazy reasoning, or clumsy phrasing will become immediately apparent.
Whatever you do, don’t publish your first draft. Even if it seems brilliant to you, there’s a good chance you’re kidding yourself.