George Saunders on Revising

If you’re a writer, then revising is a religion you must actively practice.  I joined a writing group recently, and for the critique session, most of the members brought in their first draft.  No one should see your first draft but you, and even then, you should be cringing and giving that first draft the stink eye while you’re reworking it.

Revising is much more than running spellchecks and fixing grammatical mistakes.  Each draft is an opportunity to be more succinct and exact.  I ask myself the same question every time: does this detail move the narrative/poem forward and/or add to the evolution of my character(s)?  For me, there’s an exchange of respect between writer and reader.  I show my reader respect by taking pride in my craft; and the reader, in return, treats my work with the respect that it has inherited from my labor.

In his conversation with Seth Myers last week, George Saunders addressed the notion of revising as a form of respect, but he included a third party, whom I hadn’t considered.  He spoke of a triangle of respect among the writer, character and reader.  To Saunders, the writer shows respect for her reader’s intelligence by elevating her character into a genuine representative of humanity; and in return, the reader gives respect to the character and writer by taking the time to savor and understand the complexities of her richly developed fictional being.

How does one elevate a character through a series of revisions?  Below, I’ll walk you through a revising exercise similar to what Saunders had discussed on Seth Meyers’ show.

Draft #1:  I’ve written two perfectly acceptable sentences.

John is tall.  He can reach the top of the black bookcase.

Draft #2:  Let’s tighten this up.  If John can reach the top of the bookcase, is it necessary to also say that he’s tall?  No.  Does the bookcase being black contribute to the development of John’s character?  No.  This is what I’m left with:

John is tall.  He John can reach the top of the black bookcase.

Draft #3:  Let’s think about why the reader would care that John can reach the top of the bookcase.  Just being tall is not an interesting characteristic; but if I delete the bookcase, then I’d just be left with: John.  I need to give John some sort of existential motivation, a purpose for his ability to reach high places.

John can reach the top of the bookcase where Jane hides the rent money.

Now, I’ve implied that John might not be a trustworthy fella by introducing a character who feels she needs to hide money from him.  Jane adds a layer of complexity to John’s character with one simple action towards him.  But I haven’t given Jane’s suspicions towards John credibility, so let’s add a second sentence.

John can reach the top of the bookcase where Jane hides the rent money.  She suspects he goes to the tracks on nights when he should be attending AA meetings.

Draft #4:  John is now a tall, thieving gambler with an addiction problem that he may or may not be trying to get a handle on.  He’s more interesting than the original tall John, but he’s not yet a rounded human being.  No one is all bad all the time.  How can I make John more human and relatable?  He needs redeeming traits.

John can reach the top of the bookcase where Jane hides the rent money.  She suspects he’s back to boozing when he sneaks off to the dance hall, but he’s actually learning the tango to surprise her on their silver anniversary.

Now, John is not just a tall man, he’s a tall man who still loves his wife enough after twenty-five years of marriage to try and surprise her.  He’s also a man with a wife who’s still working on forgiveness.  John is starting to look human.

I thought Saunders’s exercise broke down the revision process in an interesting and digestible way, and I wanted to share my own take of it with you.  I don’t plan to return to the writing group that I’d joined, but I’m hopeful that I’ll soon find others who share my faith in revising.

Related Link

The Guardian: “George Saunders: what writers really do when they write

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