Thursday, May 31, 2018


“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

I am a compulsive reviser, but I must admit to having ambivalent feelings when I rewrite a manuscript. I find revision to be a constant challenge, in the absence of professional editorial input.

This is the way things used to be. When the muse was with me I could often write a first draft without stopping for food or rest. This could take many hours, but I usually finished with a sense of satisfaction that was short lived.

Writers are often advised to put the manuscript aside and let some time pass before revising it.  When I pick up the draft again, my emotions have cooled, my eyes have become jaundiced, and I recall Hemmingway’s dictum that “all first drafts are excrement.” Barnaby Conrad reminded us, “Books and stories aren’t written-they are rewritten!”  Irwin Shaw said that he rewrites, shows finished drafts to his publisher and a close friend, and then does a revision.
I yearned for criticism, but my sole critic, my roommate, pal, lover, and wife is inevitably away at work when I need her.  I endure the wait by removing unnecessary dialog tags, adverbs, and adjectives.  I try to replace narrative summary with dialog, I check tenses, search for clichés and stronger verbs.

The moment the door opens I pounce on her.  “Hi. I’ve written something.  I’d like you to read it.”

She insists on removing her coat and expresses the need to visit our facility first. Don’t they have bathrooms where she works? I thrust the manuscript into her hands and hover. Her typical response after a rapid perusal is “It’s good.”

Sol Stein maintains that when applied to a manuscript as a whole, such a response can be destructive.

“No,” I demand.  “Read it critically.”
“Can it wait until after dinner?”
“Could you just read it now?”  There’s a pleading note to my voice.
“I read it already,” she tells me as I follow her into the kitchen.  I’m hungry, but I need a critique like an addict craves a fix.
“What do you think?” I persist as she pours oil into a skillet.
“I told you, it’s good.”  She starts to slice an onion.
“I mean what do you really think of it?”

Criticism even when solicited is sometimes hard to accept and often provokes defensive explanations, but total deprivation of an analytical assessment can be frustrating.

Sometimes she makes a good suggestion that I incorporate into the next revision, but today she says, “Look, I’m not an expert.  What do I know?  You need an expert.” Further pleas and demands are futile.  She is totally absorbed in culinary activities.  Exasperated, I return to the computer with my oil-spattered manuscript.

I’m anxious to move on, to write more, eventually to submit something to an editor.  The work usually improves with each revision, but when does one stop There is always the risk that further revision will diminish the draft.  Each revision takes the story further from the original.

This is how things are now. “Never ask a family member or a good friend for a critique. This is as useless as tits on a boar hog. The inevitable response will be, ‘It’s good.’ ” Paul D. Ellner (1925-20--)

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