Surgeon: Thoughts on the Revision Process

“Writing is Rewriting”
-Richard North Patterson

I’m about ready to tear my hair out because I’m rewriting so many different things that I can no longer tell what’s actually made it into my story and what’s coming from my head. I try and keep things pretty even keel by working on one project at a time, only one per day, and still, I find myself confused and semi-frustrated. Most of the time when I write and go back to rewrite, I naturally feel where the issues are and clean up a lot before I pass the drafts along to friends I trust. Not so these days. Much of my writing seems to be shrouded in an impenetrable fog. You know when you get to that delirious point where you can’t even tell if you should be using ‘into’ or ‘in to’ in your sentence? I’m there.

I’ve been trying different ways to keep myself sane. I’ve also been watching a lot of Scrubs these past couple months. For the tiny percentage of you that have never seen the show, it basically follows the daily goings on of a hospital and analyzes the relationships between nurses, doctors, and surgeons. Surgeons are often thought of as the butchers of the hospital, but the more I watch the show, the more I think writers have a lot in common with surgeons.

What I mean by that is, we approach our jobs in the same way: fix or cut out what doesn’t work, reattach the pieces, and hope your patient is still a person when you’re done. Writing is rewriting is cutting your work into hibachi steak. During my rewriting process, I mostly pull out and reword sentences to tighten things up. But I also do a lot of drastic cutting, taking out whole sections of my text. Once that’s done, it’s up to me to sew the pieces back together in such a way that it’s not noticeable. There’s nothing worse than a choppy story. I can always tell my story’s getting better when I want to go back and add something and simply can’t find a place to break open the text and add it in. When the text begins to resist revisions, you’re getting somewhere.

Like surgeons, we don’t want to make big, jagged stitches. Our patients will end up looking like Frankenstein, all cobbled together from parts that don’t fit. Instead, we want to make nice, neat stitches, the kind that heal into a faint and pretty scar, the type that with luck, only our patient (and ourselves) will notice. We want to sew up the new holes in our story so neatly that the junction will become flush with another, skin to skin.

It can be hard to make the decision to butcher our stories. They’re our babies. But butcher them we must. So go to it with abandon, a God with a knife reveling over the mastery you hold over your story. One slip and you can kill a story. But with skill and finesse, our patient will heal and come back better than before.

For more great quotes from famous writers on the rewriting process, check out this post on Shannon Hale’s site.

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