Recently The Curator published an essay of mine (have you read it yet?) and I continue to find the process a of writing for others challenging and thrilling. Derek Rishmawy nailed part of this process in this tweet recently:
Meaghan Ritchey, Adam Joyce, and, Laura Tokie helped me rework my essay from a mess to a presentable coherence, and it took me only five months to do so . . . In the process I’ve learned much more about writing than any teachers’ class could have taught me, and I look forward to revealing to students what I went through.
My first draft was long but lost. I had conceived of an idea that Meaghan liked, but when I wrote it I found it difficult to achieve what I’d pitched. She suggested I rework it, gave me some ideas about directions to take, and waited to hear from me again. This is a view of that draft with a few highlights of what I ultimately kept. The yellow highlights are ideas that, in their essence, made it into the final draft of the article. The blue highlight indicates material I kept for the next draft but eventually cut. Everything not highlighted is material I dumped for the next draft.
I did nothing with that draft for months, completely befuddled about how to fix it. Then I heard an old interview with David Foster Wallace that brought me an ah-ha moment. His comments led me out of the cave and lent me an angle from which to view the idea I’d originally pitched to Meaghan. I rewrote the article and sent it to her, and since her duties at The Curator have changed, she also involved Adam. Adam sent the draft to Laura. This next image is that draft, where the green represents lines that made it into the final draft in basically the same form in which they appear here.The yellow are areas where the ideas made it to the final in a different form.
With this draft, Laura asked me two questions:
1) What do you believe this essay is about?
2) What do you see as the payoff of this essay for the reader?
The first question I was able to answer fairly succinctly and I found it helpful to be forced to answer it. The second question scared me, because it is why I have not written much in the last 15 years. I’ll go to write something and think, “People don’t care about what I have to say. Their existence will be wonderful and maybe even more wonderful if I just keep quiet and read a good book instead of writing something.” But this time I had committed to the process, so I answered the question. Based on my answers, Laura suggested an overall famework for organizing the article. She then, on Friday, asked me to send her a new draft by Monday.
I worked on the article for six hours over the weekend and sent her a new draft, significantly expanding the sections that appear in yellow in that previous image, cutting out an entire section, and admittedly leaving the overall piece too long. What I sent her reached 1,700 words, and though I knew The Curator aims to keep articles under 1,500 words, I hoped that Laura could help me judge what to cut. This next shot is what I sent her, with the green indicating the parts that stayed in for the final copy and the blue showing what I’d added that stayed in for the final.
Just like the other images, everything not highlighted did not appear in the final version. Laura cut most of that and I cut a few additional sentences, but the final version reached 1034 words. Each cut, I am convinced, helped focus the piece on the heart of what I wanted to communicate, and the final version is something I am happy to call my own.
But now I realize why writers thank their editors so profusely. I get the byline on this essay, but without Laura, Adam, and Meaghan, how could I have changed this article like I did?
Like I said, I learned a ton from this, and I look forward to doing it again. Hopefully the next piece will not need quite so much reworking, but if it does, at least I now know it’s possible to work it into something…