Scissors v. pencil — writers on revising

scissorsOne Saturday morning when I was five or six, I found my mother in the breakfast nook with her scissors, cutting up paper for some sort of crazy art project. The snippets were all different shapes, sizes, and colors, wider ones taped next to narrower ones, jaggedly forming a longer sheet. All covered in her very neat cursive.

When I tried to get a closer look she screamed, “NO!” in the same tone of voice she used when I ventured too close to the hot stove.

Imagine having to revise your Master’s thesis with scissors and tape. I would have locked my kid in her room and not let her out until my grade came back.

Yes, dear Reader, before “cut” and “paste” became items on a computer menu, they were literal things you had to do to revise your work.

“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” —Truman Capote, Conversations With Capote by Lawrence Grobel, 1985

I never wielded the scissors much. Why? I never revised much when I was in school. And because some genius invented erasable typing paper. It was more expensive than the regular kind, sure, but an excellent investment if it kept me from having to retype an entire paper. Word processors and then computers changed the game completely. I finally became a reviser—and, wonder of wonders, a better writer too. Surely a coincidence, right?

Skip the scissors, keep the revision

Technology has made the physical act of revision so much easier. Now if only someone would invent something to ease the emotional challenges!

Whether you’re crumpling your words into a ball and throwing it across the room or highlighting and hitting the “delete” key, “killing your darlings” is never easy. It got easier for me when I ditched the violent metaphor and resolved to relocate my darlings instead.

Ah, the power of reframing. You may find it useful for all sorts of things you dread doing. But that’s for another blog.

They say the first step is recognizing you have a problem. So stop thinking your work doesn’t require revision. Write—write badly if you must, but write. And then revise. The best writers swear by it.

“I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” —Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1966


Revise! Discover the emotional and technical skills you need to become a better writer. Half-day class + private guidance from award-winning writer Elaine Bennett.

Is my writing good? Frequent Questions

Q: Is my writing good? How can I tell?

A: You can’t.

There are many answers to this question, and I’ll get to them in a minute. But the best news is you’re asking it, which means you’ve written. So hooray for you!

Too many people get hung up about even starting to write. The pens and office supplies need to be arrayed just so, the room soundproofed, the children—just to be on the safe side—muzzled in their rooms. Ridiculous!

Is your writing good? I don't know, but this challenge will help you write moreSo you’ve written. Congratulations! And if you’d like to develop the discipline of writing every day, please check out this little end-of-year challenge I’ve put together to benefit charity.

But is your writing good? How can you tell? The answer depends on when you’re asking.

If you’re re-reading something immediately after you’ve written it, then see my answer above. You can’t tell if it’s any good because you’re too close to it.

When I’m writing for clients I always try to arrange deadlines so I can write, go away and live my life for a while (maybe even sleep on it), and then come back to review and tinker.

When you’re writing for yourself, you’re more wrapped up in the material. I know it’s so hard to wait. You’re like a little kid who can’t wait for her birthday cake to cool enough to put the frosting on. You put in all those yummy ingredients; you want to taste (or read) the finished product.

Patience, grasshopper.

If you judge your work too soon, you’ll invariably get it wrong. You’ll rework perfectly good sentences and turn them into dreck. You’ll decide that the call-to-action sounds annoyingly enthusiastic and really has to go. No! You’re just tired of working on this piece. Take a walk, take a break. The cake will be so much better later.

How long a break you need depends on how long you’ve been working on the piece. A novel you’ve been wrestling with for a year requires a little more distance than that op-ed you’ve been working on all day. For the former, take a vacation; for the latter, take a night off. The newsletter you banged out in an hour? Take a walk.

Good writing emerges on reflection

Putting some time and space between you and your writing will help you get some perspective on your work. But it’s still just you and the words. If you have a way to share your work with a trusted colleague or a writer whose work you think is better than yours, you might want to do that. Maybe you can find a writer’s group to join.

The best advice I ever got about critiquing other people’s work came from my college Playwrighting teacher, the inimitable Len Berkman. On the first day of class, Len reminded us that we weren’t there to talk about the play we would have written, given the characters and scene we were reviewing. Our job was to talk about the play before us, the play our classmate had written.

If the person you ask for advice doesn’t understand the distinction, say “thank you very much” and move on. Life is too short to have people tromp on your creativity.

That said, be open to constructive criticism. If someone says, “I think you might grab the reader’s attention faster if you open with a discussion of the program at work, rather than starting with how you designed the program,” that’s a thoughtful critique. Something for you to consider.

If you’re aiming to self-publish your work, absolutely run it by a professional writer or editor, who can tell you if the structure of the book makes sense and help you tighten up the writing. And when it’s closer to publication, a copy-editor (someone who checks for grammatical errors and typos).

Most people use self-published books as a calling card to get in the door for opportunities. Or they’ll sell the books after speaking engagements. You wouldn’t show up to a speaking engagement with coffee all over your shirt—but you’ll make an equally bad impression by showing up with a book full of typos and poor writing.

Is your writing good? If you feel it is, that’s half the battle. And—again—it’s awesome that you’re even writing to begin with! But share it with a trusted colleague or a professional advisor and be willing to accept constructive criticism. Your writing may be good—but I bet it could be even better.

The “Vietnamese Waltz”

I recently found myself listening to a discussion about music. One young woman mentioned a song about a “Vietnamese coachman” and I thought, I listened to the same CD she did. How did I miss that one? Later she spoke of the lilting phrases of the “Vietnamese waltz” and I realized she meant “Viennese.”

I looked around the room – there were about a dozen other people there, all whip-smart college students, and they noticed her verbal misstep as well. But no one corrected her. 

(No, I didn’t either; I’m more of an observer in the group than a participant.)

What is that about? Does accuracy not matter anymore? Or is this the logical consequence of the “everyone participates” ethos of kids’ sports these days: The fact that she said something (she stepped up to the plate) is more important than the words she actually used?

I’m not talking about shaming her publicly. But would a simple “I believe the word you mean is…” do irreparable damage to her ego?

How do we deal with these young people in the business world once they transition from college students to colleagues? Will we all have to become simultaneous translators, correcting ideas and words silently as we go along? Or maybe we crowdsource and decide on a group “truth”: In this room, things from Vienna will be called “Vietnamese.” That’s how Castilian accents were born, right? The king had a lisp, so everyone started lisping right along with him.

Call me old-fashioned, but  I think it’s more compassionate to correct someone than to let her perpetuate her error. I still believe in accuracy. And I love a good Viennese waltz.