Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Collaborative Process

The first time I ever really thought about revision, I was a sophomore in college. I’d signed up to be a peer tutor at the writing center, and in order to do so, I had to take a semester long class called “Peer Tutoring in Writing.” I thought it would be an easy class, and it got me out of taking the junior year general education writing course. I didn’t necessarily expect to learn anything about myself or my writing, but the truth is, this ended up being one of the most important classes I ever took because it, in essence, taught me how to revise.

It was 10 years ago at this point (Yikes! I feel a little old.), so I can’t tell you everything I learned in the class. But I remember being assigned to write different types of short papers and then spending weeks revising each one. We learned about looking at higher order concerns, such as focus and organization, before lower ones like style and grammar. And everything was about writing being a collaborative process – a phrase that I heard so much over the course of the semester that it may as well have been tattooed on my brain. I can still recall an hour I spent in the professor/writing center director’s office looking at a paper I wrote, where we literally discussed the wording of one paragraph the entire time. I know it sounds tedious, but surprisingly, it wasn’t. It was, in a word, enlightening. I’d never really thought to dissect my own writing in this way before or to discuss it in such detail with another person. I found it fascinating: the idea of envisioning and re-envisioning a piece of writing until it became the best possible piece it could be.

By the end of the semester, the revision switch had completely clicked in my head, and I haven’t been able to turn it off since. I could no longer write an essay or a short story (or a blog post, for that matter!) without later going back to mull over each paragraph, each sentence, each word. It is both a blessing and curse, if you pause to consider the many hours I have spent in the last 10 years obsessing over the way my words sound.

But the biggest way my English 250 knowledge has helped me, has been in my career as a writer. I can’t tell you the number of times I revised The September Sisters. Literally, I can’t, because I revised so many times, that somewhere along the way, I lost track. I revised it several times on my own before I ever sent it to agents. And then several times again after getting rejected by agents. And then again after a friend from graduate school read the manuscript. And then again after my agent offered to represent me. And then again after some editors rejected me. And then again when my eventual editor expressed some interest. (Remember my call story?!)

Admittedly, I got a little sick of the book. At a certain point, I wasn’t sure if I could ever even look at it, much less revise it, again. I joked to my husband (well, half-joked), that I could add a lovely Shakespearian twist and kill off all my characters in the last chapter. But the truth was, even at the height of my frustration I still completely understood that each revision had made the book stronger.

This post comes at an appropriate time for me, because just this week I am finishing up a revision of my second YA novel (which will be out in winter 2010 from HarperCollins). This time around, though, I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten wonderfully sage feedback from both my agent and my editor – something which has made the revision process a whole lot faster, easier, and more enjoyable for me.

A collaborative process indeed!


BamaHippie said...

Jon and Ron will be so happy to see this post! Cheers!

Jon said...

Marleah is right! I love this post! I'll print it for Ron to read when I see him this evening.

Jillian Cantor said...

Thanks Marleah and Jon! Writing this made me realize how much I miss the writing center, and how thankful I am to have had that experience.

Tracy Madison said...

What a great post! And you're so totally right about it being a collaborative process. I learn something from my agent before submitting to the editor, and then when I get his notes back...well, I learn a lot more. Great post!

Maureen Lipinski said...

I'm constantly learning during this process--from agent edits, to editorial letters, to's like I'm constantly somewhere on the learning curve.

It's both awesome and gut-wrenching at the same time.

But, I totally agree on the collaborative issue. I seriously can't imagine not having an agent who will help guide me in the right direction--it's like having the world's best critique partner!