One of my favorite quotes about writing comes not from a writer but a musician.
“Compose first. Worry later.”
Worrying is an occupational hazard for artists. Writers fear they’ve lost their touch, that their last story was just that and that they’ve run out of ideas. Or they write an opening that seems to work and then they get stuck, and don’t know how to continue or where to end.
Frank O’Connor, the legendary Irish short story writer, didn’t worry when he started composing a short story. They would eventually fill a dozen collections and appeared regularly in The New Yorker magazine for nearly two decades until his death in 1966.
“I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like; I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I can begin to see it,” he told a Paris Review interviewer in 1957, at the height of his fame.
“Rubbish” on the page or screen would terrify most writers, but O’Connor knew that it wouldn’t decompose because he was a passionate, some might say obsessive, believer in the power of revision.
Revision, from the Latin for “look at again,” is the final and most important step of the writing process. Writing is all about revision.
O’Connor revised, “Endlessly, endlessly, endlessly.” In one collection, he said, “there are stories I have rewritten 50 times.” He continued to revise stories even after they were published.
Revision is a gift to writers who are wise enough to take advantage of it.
Instead of worrying, why not ask questions that can drive your next revision and produce your final draft?
Is my story:
- Well-organized, with a beginning that grabs a reader’s attention, a middle that keeps the reader engaged and an ending that lingers in the reader’s mind?
- Are my characters believable?
- Does the dialogue sound the way people speak to — and past — each other?
- Are the descriptions vivid, full of sensory details that trigger brain imagery?
- Do my scenes start in the middle of the action? Do they have a beginning, middle, climax and resonant ending?
- Have I left any unanswered questions?
Too many writers jump the gun. They begin judging their work before it’s ready for critical consideration. Draft first. Get your story down no matter how flawed you think it is. Only then is it time to take the opportunities revision offer.
We discover our stories by writing them. And we make our meaning clear by revising them.
That’s why my advice to writers fearful that their story is a pile of rubbish is to follow the example of Ned Rorem and Frank O’Connor.
Don’t worry. Write first. Leave the judging until later.
May the writing go well.