Take Time to Get It Right

by Memoir Mentor on November 16, 2007

I’m sitting in the library in Park City, Utah, this afternoon. Our cabin in Park City has no Internet connection. Sometimes on a good day I can pick up a signal from our neighbor, Jeff. If not, it’s a short mile down the road to this lovely new library.

I’ve chosen a writing table facing a mammoth picture window that reveals a glorious vista of rugged, snow-capped mountains. The view is particularly splendid today, with a winter sun heightening the beauty of large fluffy clouds tinged with enough dark gray to suggest rain tonight. Despite the sun, it’s only in the high-forties, quite a contrast to the mid-80s I left in Southern California yesterday.

I’ve been thinking about a comment made this week by one of my students, Carol Enos. She has attended my classes for several terms and I’ve always considered her a good writer. But there has been something new and exciting in her stories recently. It’s like something has clicked inside her, and it has made all the difference in her writing. She and I both know it, and judging by the response she’s received during our class critique sessions, her fellow students think likewise.

Her improvement can be attributed to several things: a looser, more confident style; a better grasp of the principle of showing rather than telling; and something else she casually mentioned as she was about to sit down following our critique of her latest story. She said something like, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone over this, making changes, moving things around. This has gone through at least a half-dozen drafts.” Bingo!

Sometimes we quit too soon. Maybe we’ve left our writing until the last minute, punching out something rapid-fire to meet a deadline. Occasionally, we’ll get lucky, or especially inspired, and that one, quick draft captures exactly what needed to be said on the subject. More typically, our story would have been better had we let it vegetate in our brains for awhile.

Nearly all stories can benefit from repeat massages. Each time I look at a story I’ve written, I see places where it can be improved, where mundane words can be exchanged for more specific, evocative alternatives, where excess verbiage and paragraphs can be pruned or even deleted.

There’s another problem with quitting too soon. Some writers vacate their stories before they get to the heart of what they should be writing about. They write to the edge of the real truth of their story and stop for some reason. Maybe they’re frightened of accessing emotions they’d prefer to remain repressed. Maybe they’re afraid of offending someone or showing an unpleasant side of themselves. Maybe they just haven’t given themselves enough time to think through what they want to say.

Take that time. Fight those fears. Good writing is honest writing. Don’t tap dance around the edges of your story. Your readers will easily sense you’re withholding a part of yourself and your story will lose its power to touch and teach.

Writing is a process, honed and improved over time. Give yourself the time to access the authentic heart of your story, then prune and polish it until you’ve said what you want to say in the best way you can.

For Discussion: What do you think about what I’ve said? How many drafts do you typically write to turn out a story you’re happy with? What kind of changes between your first and final drafts most enhance your stories? What advice do you have for writers who struggle with taking the time to revise their stories? Click on the “comments” link below to submit your thoughts.

Memoir Mentor