Recently for my creative fiction course, we were assigned to read Rick Moody’s “A Guide to Revision” and it was a worthwhile and insightful read. He opened his essay by saying
“Revision is the most important part of what we do as writers. It’s also the least studied stage in the process.”
When I originally read that line, I expected it to end differently, saying, “It’s also the least fun, the most heartbreaking, the equivalent of pulling a writer’s teeth,” because, to me, it feels exactly that way.
Moody refers to the revision process as a “long, slow deliberation”. He goes on to assert that “haste and a lack of interest in line-by-line work are the literary diseases of the age”. As someone who considers themself a writer in this generation, I don’t disagree that this is a serious deficiency in writing by me and my peers. I blame this on society and technology’s pressure on fast paced, instant gratification results. But overall, Moody offered a plethora of guidelines to help my generation overcome its aversion to carefully plotted writing.
First and foremost: omit needless modifiers. Moody tells the story of his boss’s exercise with the redundancy of the phrase “buy fresh fish here”. While I see the legitimacy of this thought process, I also find it too quick to expurgate. An acknowledgment needs to be made that sometimes the most proper grammatical structuring is not always the most effective. The way literary writers and advertising writers craft words differs immensely, each carrying their own pros and cons. This same assertion applies for all different forms of writing.
Next, sacrifice your modifiers. Moody claims, “adjectives and adverbs are for the grammatically insecure”. While I’m not sure I would go quite this far, I have learned, through studying Hemmingway, the beauty of simplistic sentence structure. Moody goes on to suggest the writing practice of removing all adjectives and adverbs, and then strategically placing select ones back in. While I appreciate suggestions like this, I can’t help but feel like this overall self-consciousness is more counterproductive to my writing than anything. If I want to describe something, whether it be yellow, or shiny, or small, I feel as though I have the right to use an adjective when I please.
Moody goes on to suggest several more rules. He mentions rhythm, and compares literature to music, along with listing the differences between prose and poetry (not all of which I agree with). He degrades “to be” verbs, reminding me of my overzealous high school teachers who would permit a specific number of said verbs in each formal paper. Moody addresses everything from tenses to parentheticals, alliteration to abstractions. He writes, “the removal of the word ‘love’ from a novel or short story has never harmed the story”. This particular point rang especially true for me in my own writing. It’s pure laziness to use an abstraction instead of explicating an emotion, and I fall guilty of this frequently.
Moody finally goes on to formally address what I think it the root of many writing issues faced by my generation: technology. He writes, “word processing is many bad things, but one thing it is not is a good system for the preservation of idiosyncrasy”. The way in which we compose stories nowadays is what allows for so much of the thoughtless writing that passes us by. Moody further goes on to write: “There’s an insularity to virtual prose. It might have been banged into shape by editor and copyeditor, but it has never lived and breath, nor been pronounced, not had things crossed out and rewritten.”
Perhaps the most admirable part of Moody’s guidelines are his closing remarks. He bravely admits to an inadequacy that most writers try to deny, saying
“I know, in my heart, that I am not a good enough writer, that I will never be as a good as the dead writers I admire, nor even, probably, a great many of my contemporaries. This is a truth that disappoints me. But I do make myself better, and give myself a leg up, by rewriting.”
It is this honest sentiment that reminds me of the importance of the revision process.