I spent the majority of this week and last wrangling a story. The first 1,600-word draft — written to follow an outline I thought was solid and completed at approximately 6:30 p.m. last Friday (that’s 1.5 hours late to the weekend) — read like a list of events. No emotion, no thought progression. Just, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this, and then they got a cool letter. The end.
I’m not sure if the three-day weekend (Happy belated Memorial Day!) helped or hindered the revision process. I returned to the office on Tuesday, looked over Friday’s draft, heard Peter Parker’s editor in my head:
And decided to trash it. Back to the drawing boards.
(Almost literally, actually, since my first outline evolved out of a color-coded mess of whiteboard notes.)
Here’s what I (re)learned through this particularly frustrating revision process:
1. If you begin in the wrong place, nothing about the draft will seem right.
When I sat down to write from my new outline, I realized my planned beginning was still wrong (cue fists slamming on the desk) and I couldn’t write anything else until I got that right.
One of my most-used pieces of writing advice (courtesy of Sarah Dessen) is:
When you’re stuck on a story, go back to the last place things were going well and take a different course.
I apply this to nonfiction on a regular basis and, when I can identify the stuck spot and devise an alternate route, it works like a charm. With this piece, devising an alternate route took more effort than usual, but once I figured it out, the wheels on the bus went round and round and the story got moving.
2. Be willing to go back to square one.
I was annoyed that I’d written nearly 2,000 words of what I thought was unusable draft, and I was immensely frustrated that I had to outline all over again.
Once I have an outline, I’m usually convinced I have the story figured out. In this case, I was wrong and I was convinced I’d have to trash the entire draft.
But when I re-outlined and started writing, I found that I was wrong again: a lot of what I’d already written was usable — it just needed more narrative around it, more actual storytelling instead of just rehashing events.
Embrace the process. Go back to square one.
3. Get up close with your notes.
If you don’t know which page to flip to for that one quote or anecdote, you haven’t studied your notes enough.
I have this tendency — when a story involves talking to a lot of people at different times about the same thing — to think I know the material inside-out after I transcribe the interviews and read through, highlight, color-code my notes once. This tendency, I’m learning, is actually laziness I have to fight for the quality and integrity of my work.
I need to be as familiar with those notes as I am with my Bible.
When a quote comes to mind that could fit in this section about people’s perceptions of prison inmates, I need to know exactly where in my notes I can find it. If no quotes are coming to mind, I have a lot more studying to do.
4. Take the time to narrow your notes down, so you have a more concise reference that is tightly focused around the same things your story is focused on.
When you’re working with pages and pages of notes, it’s easy to get so overwhelmed by the information, you lose sight of the story.
When I sat down on Tuesday, I opened my notes — on paper and the same document on my computer — and, as I read through them, I copied and pasted what related to my story into a new document. This cut my active notes in half.
Doing this for investigative journalism will be more complicated, of course, but the principle holds regardless of what type of story you’re writing:
Cut your notes down to what is related to the story.
Remove anything you know you won’t use. If you’re so overwhelmed that you have no idea what you will or will not use, keep studying your notes and question whether or not you’ve done enough research.
5. Be patient, but keep pushing.
It’s okay to show signs of exasperation.
- Slamming your hands on your desk
- Muttering, You have got to be kidding me!
- Crumbling every sheet of paper you’ve written on in pursuit of this story. Okay. Maybe don’t do that.
But whatever you do — unless you happen to be a verbal processor, which is rare for writers — don’t vent to people.
Venting turns into talking as if you hate the work. You don’t hate the work. You’re just frustrated that it’s not going smoothly. Channel your frustration into the work, and eventually things will move the way they should, even if the movement is slow and clumsy.
6. Kill your darlings. Or at least be willing to.
If you’re a writer, you’ve heard this advice countless times. Like most cliches, it’s been repeated over and over because it’s right.
When a draft is under revision, everything’s on the chopping block. In order to stay, it has to prove it belongs. If a beautiful line, scene, description, word, gets in the way of the story, the only choice is to cut it.
If it’s any comfort, remember this: being willing to cut something — laying that beautiful line on the chopping block — doesn’t mean it will actually be cut in the end. When my new draft started flowing, I was thrilled to discover that a scene I thought I’d lose actually got to stay (points if you can correctly identify it).
7. Keep pushing.
I repeat myself, because the push is a necessary part of the struggle. Without it, you’re not struggling, you’re accepting defeat.
If writing is your job (like it is for me — one post-college life win!), accepting defeat makes you a bad employee. If writing’s not your job, it just makes you a bad writer. Which if you’re actually a writer, you are not okay with. So push on.
8. When you finish the piece to satisfaction (which you will), celebrate the way writers do.
Read. Subscribe to another magazine. Buy a load of books off Amazon. Search for your next story.
And if you need some weekend reading, check out the piece that in some backhanded way inspired this blog post:
This spring, six exercise science students and their professor traveled to New Castle Correctional Facility to gather data for a research project. They left with more than numbers.
Comment if you find the scene I was afraid I’d lose — or if you have writing lessons of your own to share.