Honing the Message
by Ian Birnbaum

One of the most important things that I'm struggling with in my writing right now is learning how to revise. Now, copy editing and grammar checks - those I have no problem with. But revision - true revision - is something else entirely.

It occurs to me that I have never really extolled the virtues of having a teacher before. If that's true, it's long overdue: writing is very much an apprentice art, and having a good teacher is damn near mandatory. It can be a professor, editor or friend that can teach you, or it can be the religious reading of all of a favorite author's books. Either way: if we had to start all over and make up the process of writing from scratch with each generation, we would never have gotten better than the ancient Greek myths or the tales of Homer.

Ok, bad example.

Regardless: my teacher, a man named Amos, taught me many things in our short time together. He taught me that background characters still have to be characters ("his mother can't just stand in the kitchen stirring sauce all day!"), he taught me how to accept criticism gracefully ("Shut up! No talking while we insult your writing!". But most of all, he taught me how to revise.

noze.jpgRevision is a difficult thing to explain, which makes me send that many more kudos towards Amos for doing it so well. Basically, take this scenario: you have a friend who is awful at telling jokes. He stammers towards the punchline, omits important information, then giggles so hard that he can't finish and you're left wondering what exactly happened after the two Jewish guys walk into the bar (they BUY it!).

You, however, listen to this rambling, broken, shambles of a joke and note in the back of your mind that it might possibly have potential to be funny someday. And when that day comes, you recite the joke at the office Christmas party - you color the characters, you add flavor and extra dialogue and you pause just long enough before the punchline to make the delivery ever so perfect.

The story is the same, but the delivery has been re-imagined to omit the unnecessary, to strengthen the crucial and to set up the plot twist at the end for maximum affect.

This is the process I've been working on for Regular Guys as I've been preparing it to be sent away to meet its destiny. The problem is this: when I wrote it, to be completely honest, I had no idea where I was going with it. I just got this idea about two guys setting out on a road trip to nowhere, so I picked it up and ran. It turned into something pretty interesting, but then it just ran out of gas. I wrestled and fought with it and tortured out an ending, but there was just too much time spent in the middle of the piece not knowing what was going on, and it showed. People read it and said "....what?"

So now I'm going back through and trimming the fat. Starting from scratch, I'm rewriting. I know where the story is going to end up and who the characters are, and now I'm just going to tell the joke with less stammering, stuttering, and giggling at my own cleverness. The most important strategy to a good revision is distance: you simply cannot effectively revise a story that you wrote an hour ago. You're too attached to it. At a minimum, wait about a month. My man Amos suggests that you leave a story alone for a year, but I gots groceries to buy, so a month will have to do.

The plan is to mail it out this week, and see what happens.

In a similar vein as last week's Parental Advice trainwreck, share the nuggets of wisdom that your teachers have given you.

Celebrity Update: Nothing yet from the first editor, but the publication guidelines say I may have to wait six months for a response. Celebrity has now been sent to three different magazines, so we'll see who gets back to me first.

Ian says there will there'll be no nose job. Said dodio-doe, no nose job (he's smarter than that)

Word Whore Archives


Tom O'Shea, HS Freshman English:

Is it necessary?

What don't I know that's important?

Sometimes it's okay to just whack off on paper...just remember it's a solitary act, you probably shouldn't share it.


At a minimum, wait about a month. My man Amos suggests that you leave a story alone for a year.

I had a story that I loved, but I had a few small problems with it, so I shelved it for about 5 years. When I went back to it I hated it, couldn't understand what I was trying to say, nor how I thought it was worth saving in the first place. But that's me.


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