In fiction there must be a theoretical basis to the most minute details. Even a single glove must have its theory.
It is in self-limitation that a master first shows himself.
A classic is a book that doesn’t have to be written again.
–Carl Van Doren
The late John Gardner, my writing mentor more than thirty years ago, once told a story about revision that has stuck with me. He said he gave a reading, and during the Q&A a woman raised her hand and said, “You know, I think I like your writing, but I don’t think I like you.” His reply was memorable. “That’s all right,” he said, “because I’m a better person when I’m writing. Standing here, talking to you now, I can’t revise my words. If I say something wrong or not quite right, or maybe offensive and it hurts someone, the words are out there, public, and I can’t take them back. I have to rely on you to revise or fix them for me. But when I’m writing, I can go over and over what I think and say until it’s right.”
I think Gardner captured the heart of the creative process. We often hear that 90 percent of good writing is rewriting. We also know that writing well is the same thing as thinking well, and that means we want our final literary product—story, novel, or essay—to exhibit our best thought, best feeling, and best technique.
When I compose a first draft I just let everything I feel and think spill out raw and chaotically on the page. I let it be a mess. I trust my instincts. I just let my ideas and feelings flow until I run out of words. It’s fine for an early draft to be a disaster area. I don’t censor myself. When I have this raw copy, I can then decide if this idea is worth putting more effort into. If so, then with the second draft, I clean up spelling and grammar. I add anything I forgot to include in the first draft and take out whatever isn’t working.
Then the real fun begins with the third draft. (Despite its importance, art should always be a form of play.) That’s where I work on what I know are my creative weaknesses. There are many, but let me focus on just one—poetic description, achieving what Gerard Manley Hopkins called inscape, and a granularity of specifics and detail. As a cartoonist and illustrator, I think visually first. Like most writers, my images overwhelmingly represent sight, what I see. We do have a built-in bias for visual imagery. We say we “see” (or hear) the truth. Never do we say we touch or feel it. So, in that third draft, I work consciously to include whenever possible imagery for the other senses—taste, smell, touch. If need be, I’ll resort to synaesthesia, or describing the experience of one of our senses using the language of another. Or onomatopoeia. With taste and smell, for example, my goal would be to describe odor as well as Upton Sinclair did in the “Stockyards” section of The Jungle; and sound as well as Lafcadio Hearn handles it. A book in my library that helped me much with this when I first started writing was The Art of Description by Marjorie H. Nicolson (New York: F. S. Crofts & Co., 1928).
Another problem I often have, personally, is at the idea stage. I sometimes start out with too many ideas. Before I begin to write, my thoughts are bursting with possibilities for the stories, multiple layers of meaning, things I’d love to include, all of which I jot down as quickly as they come to me. But then at some point I realize that less is more when one is plotting a story, if one wants it to be an economical, efficient, and coherent aesthetic object. Inevitably, I always have to scale things back, to search for and find the simple action and structure that creates suspense, causation that feels logical and inexorable, and a clean, uncluttered emotional through-line, i.e., what to emphasize and what to mute. With that decided, I then know how to place the discarded idea in a new way in the composition.
In that third draft, I begin to polish sentences and paragraphs for style. I always need a minimum of three drafts before I have anything worthy of showing to others, and that’s only if I’m lucky. (Don’t get me wrong: my drafts are not separate entities completed from start to finish. They flow into each other. I’m constantly rethinking a story’s beginning as I work on the middle and end.) Sometimes my ratio of throwaway to keep pages is 20:1. From the third draft forward, I work at varying sentence length (long, short) in every paragraph, and also varying sentence forms (simple, compound, complex, loose, periodic). I see each sentence as being a unit of energy. The music and meaning of each sentence and paragraph must carry into the next and contribute to a larger rhythmic design.
I try to make sure each paragraph can justify its being on the page. That is, each paragraph should have at least one good idea in it. Or do something to advance the story. Or enrich the details of the world in which the story is taking place or the characterizations of its people. I work at being as artistically generous as possible. I work to amplify a strong narrative voice. I want intellectual and imagistic density. And I want to achieve, of course, the feeling of organic story flow. I rewrite and edit until the piece has no waste or unnecessary sentences whatsoever. Nothing that slows down the pace of the story. Any sentence that can come out should come out. (“Kill your babies,” as the saying goes, unless, of course, you absolutely love that sentence.) There should be no remplissage (literary padding) or longueur (long and boring passages). No irrelevant postcard details in background descriptions. I want every detail to be “significant,” i.e., revealing in terms of character, place, or event. I work to get music—rhythm, meter—between sentences and paragraphs, as if the prose composition is actually a musical work, one pleasing to the ear. The way to test this is to read it out loud. If I stumble when reading the piece, I know those sentences that tripped me up (that were hard to say or recite) need to be rewritten. Also, I try to be generous with concrete language, and to write always with specificity. (The Devil is always in the details.)
I try, as I rework and revise, to remember a note I made to myself in my writer’s notebooks: “In great fiction the main element of importance is the fusion of character and event, their interplay, the way the latter reveals the former, and the way the former leads inevitably to the latter. One must also see how event transforms character even as it is produced by character.”
Character, then, is the engine of plot, and over the years I’ve come at the creation of characters from a few different angles: (1) basing them on an idea or principle; (2) drawing them from real people, specific individuals (or several) as my model for a character; (3) basing them on myself; and (4) basing them on the biography of a historical figure. Quite often, my characters combine all those approaches. So for me, revision is a combination of cutting away (like sculpting the sentence from stone) and also a constant layering of the language (like working with the sentence as you would clay). The palimpsestic layering part of the process often leads to sudden surprises—puns, oracles, and revelations—that I’m always looking for. And these discoveries often redirect the story away from my original idea or conception. Back and forth, adding and subtracting, like that. You know when a piece is finished, because you can’t pull out a single sentence or change a word or syllable. If you do extract that heavily polished sentence, you create a hole in the space between the sentences before and after it, since you have altered not only the sense but the sound that links those sentences. (It’s like ripping an arm off a human body, an act that affects everything else in the organism you’re creating.) Achieving this requires (for me) lots of thrown-away pages: 1,200 for Faith and the Good Thing, 2,400 for Oxherding Tale, 3,000 for Middle Passage, and more than 3,000 for Dreamer. I use this same method for short stories. I guess I don’t so much write stories as sculpt them. I love the sustained focus this requires, for it is so much like the first stage in formal meditation, called dharana (or concentration).
I started keeping a diary when I was twelve; my mother suggested the idea, mainly so she could read it and learn what feelings and secrets I was keeping from her. I remember her asking once at dinner, “Why don’t you like your uncle So-and-so?” and I thought, Dang! She must be a mind reader, then I realized she’d been reading the diary, and from that point on I had to hide it from her. In college the diary transformed into a journal in which I wrote poetry and brief essays to myself, and (as with a diary) tried to make sense of daily events. (These old journals fill up one filing cabinet in my study.) When I started writing fiction, the journals moved in the direction of being a writing tool and memory aide.
I use cheap, unlined spiral notebooks, each page like a blank canvas. Into them go notes on literally everything I experience or think worth remembering during the day; I jot down images, phrases used by my friends, fragments of thoughts, overheard dialogue, anything I flag in something I’ve read that strikes me for its sentence form or memorable qualities, its beauty or truth. These writing notebooks since 1972 sit on one of my bookshelves 30 inches deep, along with notebooks I kept from college classes. (I save everything; it’s shameless.) After 43 years of accumulation, the notebooks contain notes on just about every subject under the sun. When I have a decent third draft, I begin going carefully through my notebooks, page after page, hunting for thoughts, images I’ve had, or ideas about characters (observations I’ve made of people around me), carefully selecting from my notebooks details like someone arranging a Japanese rock garden. Although it can sometimes take five days (eight hours a day), and even two weeks, to go through all these notebooks and folders (since I add something new to the current one every day), I can always count on finding some sentence, phrase, or idea I had, say, 20 or 30 years ago that is perfect for a novel or story in progress. The literary journal Zyzzyva used to publish a feature called “The Writer’s Notebook.” If you look at the Fall 1992 issue (pages 124-43), you’ll see reproductions of my revised pages and an early outline for Middle Passage, as well as character notes for Captain Ebenezer Falcon that I wrote on hotel stationery (the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco) when I was on the road.
When I tell students the anecdote about Gardner, I emphasize his feeling that the result of this painstaking revision process is that for at least once in their lives, here on the page, they can achieve perfection or something close to that, if they are willing to revise and reenvision their work long enough. And then I say: Where else in life do we get the chance—the privilege and blessing—to lovingly, selflessly go over something again and again until it finally embodies exactly what we think and feel, our best expression, our vision at its clearest, and our best techne?
Or, as Jeffery Allen said in an interview about his novel Song of the Shank, “I really tried hard to get it right. Art may be the only form of perfection available to humans, and creating a work of art might be the only thing in life that we have full control over. So we might ask, How is great measured? Craft is certainly one thing. I would also like to think that certain works of art transform the artist.”
Excerpted from The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson. Copyright © 2016 by Charles Johnson. Published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
In general, good writers love to revise. It gives them a sense of accomplishment, and they find it easier or more satisfying than composing a first draft. I once revised a short story that I wrote over a two-year period, whittling it down from 35 pages to 13, dropping a character, changing the central theme, and ultimately producing one of my most well-published pieces. Some writers even revise their work after it’s been published, just for themselves, nagged by some imperfection they perceive or based on how their readers have reacted.
Of course, when you write a personal statement or application essay, you don’t have the luxury (or curse) of endless opportunities to revise. Nevertheless, you do have to expect that your first draft of the material might require multiple re-readings and revisions to be ready for submission. My best student writers tend to report that they re-read and revise their personal essays at least seven times, even if they change only one word or two each time, and they seek feedback from professors, advisors, Writing Center tutors, Career Services staff, friends, and even their parents. As they revise, they consider how to effectively use their space, tailor their content, perfect their grammar and mechanics, and improve their tone. As the discussions that follow will show, these principles are often tightly related to one another.
Revising for Space
When revising to save space or meet a word count, the first tactic is to think in physical terms. If your essay runs just a few lines over a boundary, look carefully at your paragraphs. Often, an entire line might be taken up by just a word or two, and shortening that paragraph accordingly can save a line. Of course, in physical terms, you can also experiment slightly with font and form, but keep in mind that astute readers will be critical of anything that is physically difficult to read because of how you managed space.
More important in revising for space is for you to look at your material holistically and ask yourself if any essay part is taking up more proportional space than it should or is simply too long to justify its value. I once worked with a student who was having trouble conforming to her word count, so we looked at her first draft carefully for any weak areas, deciding that her introduction wasn’t really worth the space it took up. Here was her original introduction:
There are moments in my day when students buzz by like bees do, I take a confused pause and ask myself: oh no, where am I going? The pause is almost unnoticeable, nevertheless daunting. Of course, the quick answers are: the student union, class, work, and a never ending list of meetings. However the larger question looms over my body as I hustle to register students to vote and plan more ways to increase political awareness on campus. I used to dread the exploration of my future possibilities; this looming entity was a cloud ready to break apart and drown me in a rainstorm. Despite my love of running around in rainstorms, I found more comfort in my mother’s words: to find out where you’re going, you need to know where home is.
Upon reflection, the writer realized that not only was the opening lengthy, it was also redundant with other parts of the application. Readers would learn plenty about her energy and political activism in her resume and list of activities. And as far as the introduction’s creativity, the writer realized she was just using it to show off a bit, and in the process using clichés (“students buzz by like bees”) and providing irrelevant detail (her “love of running around in rainstorms”).
Fortunately, this writer spared her readers and hacked her introduction down to the material that was the most original—her mother’s comforting words, which were a central theme in her essay. Her revised introduction read thus:
I have always found comfort in my mother’s words: to find out where you’re going, you need to know where home is.
Much nicer—crisp, interesting, and meaningful. By revising six sentences down to one, the writer emphasized what she cared about most in her original introduction, which also turned out to be the material that was the most personal.
Revising for Content
Recognizing the audience’s need for content, especially guided by the application question criteria you’re addressing in a personal essay, you should always consider ways to revise that will provide further substance. For instance, knowing from the application question that his readers were interested in specific details about his planned master’s research, one writer changed this:
As part of my master’s research at Mythic College I am interested in the information overload issue—it can cause anxiety, poor decision-making, and reduced attention span.
. . . to this:
For my master’s thesis at Mythic College I plan to focus on cognitive architectures that allow us to make simulations of and predictions about human performance in situations such as driving vehicles or piloting fighter aircraft.
In this revision, we learn much more meaningful information about the planned research, including the practical applications of the work. Thus, we are more likely to assess that this student is indeed ready to begin his research.
As this example demonstrates, revising for content is usually about providing more concrete detail based on audience needs, keeping in mind that the content you choose reveals you as a person, as a thinker, and as a student. The more these three parts can be blended together through your content revisions, the better.
Revising for Grammar and Mechanics
Like many teachers, I sometimes urge my students to read their work aloud as a proofing tactic and so that they can literally hear how their writing might sound to others. This can be very effective, in that it helps you listen to your own sentence rhythms, sense gaps in logic, intuit where punctuation is needed, and identify words that you’re misusing or overusing. However, a curious problem surfaces with this practice. Writers who read their work aloud tend to insert words that aren’t really there on the page, or substitute correct words for incorrect ones, not even realizing they’re doing it. Cognitively, what’s happening is that they’re revising, effectively and automatically, even if someone else looking over their shoulder at the printed work has to point it out to them.
The key to revising your work for grammar (both word choice and wording) and mechanics (small but important matters such as punctuation) is to, in effect, listen to your work anew. The best writers adopt an objective “listening ear,” learning to detect their problems of grammar and mechanics both intuitively and methodically, pretending they’re encountering the work for the first time no matter how many times they’ve re-read it.
Meanwhile, you can count on two things: (1) we tend to repeat the same errors over and over in our writing, and (2) other writers make the same errors we do. If we have one comma error in an essay, we’re likely to have others; if we have a particular usage problem such as the distinction between “affect” and “effect,” we can be sure other writers have it too. Therefore, by studying the most common errors and revising accordingly, we’re likely to improve our work substantially. And when we make particularly common errors in our personal essays (such as confusing “it’s” with “its”), our audience is justified in viewing us as lazy and unthinking, in that such errors are so easy to reason through and correct.
Grammatically, writers tend to make their most obvious errors in these areas:
Subject/verb agreement, which can usually be addressed by identifying each subject and verb in your sentences, ignoring the other words mentally, and making certain that they match in number and sound. Also, remember that the word “and” linking two subjects makes them plural (“Grammar and mechanics are related”), and that when subjects are connected by the word “or” the subject closer to the verb determines the verb’s number (“Either the punctuation marks or the usage is flawed”).
Verb tense, which must be considered both for consistency and context. Writers can switch verb tenses within a paragraph as long as the context calls for it, but unnatural shifts in verb tense stand out loudly (“The sample was heated and then cool before storage”). As a general principle, the simplest verb tense should be chosen for the circumstances (avoid “has,” “have,” and “had” as helpers except when necessary), and favor the present tense when possible (it brings the material “closer” to the reader).
Runs-ons and fragments, which can again be addressed by identifying your subjects and verbs, and in some cases by assessing sentence length.
Commonly confused terms, which are easy to look up in any style handbook, and therefore a potential source of great irritation to your educated readers. Just to rehearse and briefly describe a few, “affect” is usually a verb meaning "to influence," while “effect” is usually a noun meaning "outcome" or "result." “It’s,” of course, always means "it is," while “its” always shows possession. The abbreviation “e.g.” is Latin for exempli gratia and means “for example,” while “i.e.” is Latin for id est and means “that is.” The word “imply” means "to suggest" or "to indicate," while “infer” involves a person actively applying deduction. The word “that” is used to define and limit a noun’s meaning, while “which” is used to provide descriptive information not central to the noun’s definition.
From a mechanics standpoint, writers do themselves a great favor by learning to understand punctuation conceptually and fundamentally, as follows:
A comma is a separator. Therefore, when you use one you should identify why the material is worthy of separation. Common reasons include that you used a transition word that creates a natural pause, you wrote a lengthy, complex sentence with multiple subjects and verbs, and that you supplied a list of three or more related items or phrases in a row. All three of these reasons helped me punctuate this paragraph with commas.
A colon is an arrow pointing forward. It tells us that new information, which is promised by the wording before it, is about to arrive. The colon is especially handy for introducing an announced piece of evidence, a focused example, or a list. Contrary to popular belief, the colon can be used to point us forward to a single word or to an entire sentence. My favorite example of the former is an old George Carlin joke: “Weather forecast for tonight: dark.”
A semicolon is a mark of co-dependency. This mark is so often mentally confused with the colon that I am often forced to repeat to my students: “The colon is two dots; the semicolon is a comma below a dot.” (Though it’s sad to have to say it, at least the explanation actually involves a semicolon.) As my explanation demonstrates, the semicolon is usually used to join phrases or sentences having grammatical equivalency, and it emphasizes that the joined parts are related, even co-dependent, in context.
A dash redefines what was just said. I’m amazed at how many writers simply don’t use the dash at all—except excessively in e-mails—because they’re afraid of it. But the dash is a powerful way to make an important aside, as I did above, and to tack on an additional comment of consequence—a comment that redefines. When typing the dash, be certain that you don’t type a hyphen, but two hyphens in a row or a long bar (which Word is perfectly happy to provide automatically as you juxtapose two typed hyphens or via its pull-down symbol map).
Speaking of Word, by all means do use the grammar checker to test grammar and mechanics in your personal essay, but don’t trust it blindly. To state the obvious, the grammar checker does not think, and it doesn’t know the contextual difference between, say, “mescaline” (an illegal hallucinogen) and the word “miscellaneous.” I choose this particular example because one of my students once accidentally claimed on her resume that she was in charge of “mescaline responsibilities” at her summer job. With that one slip, she could have worried and alienated both her former employer and her future one.
Revising for Tone
Put simply, tone is the writer’s attitude towards the subject. We discern the writer’s tone by both the words chosen and the content selected, and in personal statements many writers unknowingly send the wrong message about themselves because of their tone. They often do this because they feel they should explain some blemish on their record (“It took me a long time to decide on the right major”) or because they mistakenly think that arrogance might be taken as confidence (“I invented a totally new method of scientific research”). Instead, such writers are likely to be perceived as indecisive and lacking in confidence in the first case, and hubristic and naive in the second.
If I had to boil the issue of tone in personal statements down to one word, it would be this: affirmation. Your job is to affirm—what is true, what you’ve accomplished, what you value, how you think, how you see the world, what your plans are, what your research means, what program you’d like to attend, and so on. Too many writers focus on the negative, stressing their uncertainties, their doubts, and even their failures. There’s always a positive way to spin a point—watch the spin doctors and politicians on television news shows if you need a primer—and in a personal statement a positive, affirmative tone is critical.
As examples, here are some sentences taken from personal essays that I’ve read, but altered so that they’re spun as negatives:
I only completed a generalist degree in a field called earth sciences, which gives you a little bit of everything without any real specializations.
Unfortunately, government red tape and bureaucracy are intertwined with how we learn about our environment in school.
My long-term goals remain uncertain, but I feel very sure that I don’t want to be a professor.
Though these are altered to make a point, many personal statements do contain such negative attitudes, with writers unwisely expressing dark feelings about themselves and towards the very fields in which they plan to study. Here are the positively spun versions of the same sentences, as they originally appeared:
As a scientist, my training began in earth sciences—a bachelor’s degree combination of geography, meteorology, and geoscience.
Many of our existing federal ecosystem management protocols are based on a rich tradition of physiographic study.
My future plans lean more towards industry and research than academia.
As you revise personal essays, concentrate on exuding an affirmative, positive tone. Be upbeat but not overbearing. Explain but don’t equivocate. Be realistic but not pessimistic. Speak confidently but don’t brag. Be idealistic but not naive. Tell the truth about yourself and your background but don’t apologize for either.
Do all this in your tone, and your readers may pay you the simple compliment most commonly coveted by writers: “I like your style.”