In 1986, Nora Ephron published in the New York Times an amusing essay on revision that ended in an exhortation: “Revise now, before it's too late.” I am approximately the same age now as Ephron was then (she had gone from being a newspaper journalist to essayist to—at the time—screenplay writer; I have gone from being a newspaper journalist to nonfiction writer to—at present—a fiction writer), and, as someone who longer works on deadline, I'd like to revise Ephron's exhortation to “Revise always, it's never too late.” Patricia Smith has said that she encourages poetry students to revise for originality of thought, originality of language, and melodicity. These guideposts, I find, can and must be applied to any kind of writing. (At a previous writing desk, a magazine table where I wrote mostly book-length nonfiction, I kept a reminder note taped to the desktop that read PEDESTRIAN SENTENCES!, as in, “to avoid.”) What makes this sentence one that only you could have written? What makes this unforgettable image also carry its weight in revelation, in knowledge? Does this passage sing when you read it out loud? For prose writers, I also must add this: Revise each paragraph until it becomes like a diamond, extremely beautiful and also extremely efficient—make it cut through glass. Adjust it to pack as much information as possible without compromising spaciousness, make the reader think deeper into a subject in a way that is also gorgeous, even if the subject breaks your heart? Approach each paragraph as you would a poem, then make it stun. Approach each paragraph as you would a poem, then make it stun. Fiction, as Ephron observes, is “the ultimate shot at revision.” Here, you can go beyond choosing to have a character “walk” or “plod” or “fly” up the stairs (or steps), or stay put: you can revise that character (and the stairs, or steps) entirely out of your book. You can toss a diamond you've just cut, and make a brand new one. The note I have pinned above my current writing desk, a repurposed dining table where I […]
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