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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I'm no quitter, part 2

Now as to how I write. . . My dad used to say there were two kinds of people in the world--those who divide people in the world into two kinds and those who don't. Well, I used to like to say there are two kinds of writers--those who overwrite and those who underwrite (and I'm not talking about insurance). Those who overwrite just pour words and phrases into a text and then spend the rest of their time taking away words that don't belong there. Those who underwrite just barely get down enough words to suggest a text and then spend the rest of their time adding the necessary words to flesh it out.

If I were to choose one of those models to describe myself, I would probably be inclined to lean more toward the underwriting side. But the fact is, I'm more of an overwriting underwriter. I once asked S if she wanted to see some poems I'd just done the first draft for. She said sure, but she didn't know whether she would have anything to say about them because by the time I'd get them to where I really wanted them to be, they wouldn't look anything like they did then. I believe she said something to the effect that it would be hard to even recognize the two versions as being the same poem.

I have to admit she's right. I never throw away first drafts of a poem or first drafts of a story because I know I can find something there worth developing if I go back to it often enough.

A few years ago, I "finished" a poem that I started when I was 19. Now when I say started, I don't mean I was constantly working on it all those years in between. In fact there were multiple drafts that I thought -- given my mood at the time -- were either finished poems or proof that I couldn't write at all. But I never really had one that felt complete. The poem began as twenty lines of free verse. The finished poem is 140 lines of iambic pentameter with a very strict rhyme scheme.

So does it always take me that long to write something? No. I write a column for the magazine I edit. I do it in one sitting, which basically means one draft. I also do a series of newsletters for health care providers. Each issue has four short articles about a particular condition. The articles deal with treatments, pharmacotherapy, patient education, and so on. Now these are a little harder to write, and there's a lot of research and note taking that precedes the actual writing. But again, the articles are done pretty much in one draft.

Here's the thing, though. The process is the same as when I'm working on a piece for years. And just for the record, I am a big believer in revision--no matter how good a first draft is, there's something that can be done to it to make it better. The question is -- will it really make a difference in how the text does what it's supposed to do? And more often the real question is when does the piece have to be published? But as I was saying, the process is the same.

As I write, I keep going back over what I've written. Even though I may have known at the beginning what I was after, I'm constantly looking back to see what it is I'm really saying. When I can do that, as laborious as it actually is at times, I can create something with the meaning I'm searching for.

So I don't really underwrite, I write slowly. I suppose when I was younger I wrote a little more swiftly. I certainly remember all nighters in graduate school to do papers that I should have taken at least a month to do. But even then, I wrote the papers the same way--by constantly looking back and wrestling with what I was saying. And that's why I can't do the NaNoWriMo (see yesterday's post). Not that I wouldn't have looked back at what I was saying and been constantly revising it. But that's just the opposite of what the event called for. The emphasis wasn't on creating meaning. It was on generating words. And words without meaning are meaningless.

Not everybody writes the same way. Some people write fast. Some people write slow. Some people write while watching TV. Some people shut themselves in a closet. Some outline. Some wing it. There is no right way to write, except what works for you.

Now, if you want to see some very effective writing, be sure to check out today's spotlighted blog post.


  1. Thanks for sharing your methods, Grandpa.

    I will check out the featured blog post later.

  2. That is one of the best descriptions of writing I have ever read. Wow.

  3. How interesting to hear about your writing process. I too like to save old drafts. I rarely reuse what I cut out of a MS, but it’s psychologically easier to edit that way. I would agree that there are many ways to write and that revision should be a big part of any project.

  4. Funny thing, I find blogging like a form of talking. But still, I end up revising what I've written so that the prose is a bit more organized, since most of this is coming off the top of my head.

    In regards to prose, I think underwriting is an art. Spare, lean prose isn't something that most start off doing, and I suspect over the years you've learned to hone as you go along.

    Yes, writing is rewriting. Over and over again.