Doing the Hard, Hard Work

Do you ever have that experience where you sit down at your table and churn out thousands of words of pure gold that require no polishing whatsoever? Yeah, me either. I suppose there are times where I can get into a writing “groove” and the thoughts flow more easily, but even these sessions are going to need extensive refactoring later down the road. The fact is, actual pure gold is only found through long refinement and never in a flash of alchemy.

Certainly when masters sit at their craft they can make their work appear easy, but that is only by the quiet accumulation of skill through years of hard labor. People are not simply born with the “creative” chromosome that magically makes artistic expression effortless to them. To suggest otherwise is one of the worst insults you can give to a creator, as it suggests they did nothing more notable than win some genetic lottery. Original, quality work does not come about by luck or accident, it only comes about in one way, and that is through doing the hard, hard work.

Of course, that hard work often isn’t very glamorous. It’s slogging and frustrating and dirty. At first that might seem like a depressing outlook, but I think if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll agree that it is actually much better this way. If we could effortlessly flick out perfect creative expressions with every turn of the wrist then there wouldn’t be much value in a masterpiece anymore, now would there? The value is derived entirely because of the long, torturous effort that we know went into it. Being able to say that the work was crushing but we did it anyhow means we persevered where others gave up, and now we have something to show for it that they never will.

That doesn’t mean we have to make that work more difficult than necessary. As I suggested at the end of my last post, there are a few rules of thumb that can take the gargantuan task of correcting all of the errors in your story, and break it into more manageable pieces. I’d like to share them with you.

First off, I always like to simply read through my story over and over, fixing any glaring issues that I come across on the way. If I find a grammar error I fix it, if a sentence feels clunky I reword it, if I slipped from first-person to third I correct it. In short, anything that stands out like a sore thumb and can be quickly corrected, I take care of it. Of course some plot-holes and weak scenes are more complex and resist any sort of quick-fix. For any of these I just make a note of them and move on, I’ll be circling back to them at a later point. To me this process is a lot like sanding a rough piece of wood. Each pass leaves those snarls and knots a little bit smoother until they feel comfortable enough to handle for a more in-depth inspection. I know that I’ve reached the end of this stage when I have a read through that goes from start to finish without any new problems discovered.

If I feel like continuing on to the next step of clean-up I will, but it’s important to note that this is a process best not rushed. If you are editing your work while burned out, you are going to be sloppy and miss things. As much as possible you want to write with a clear mind, so if at any point it’s buzzing with all the minutia of your work, go and get a breath of fresh air. That principle works the other way, too. If at any point you think your story is complete, the absolute best it can ever be, take a break and come back to it later with a fresh pair of eyes for a second opinion. Most times you’ll probably realize you were too close to the grain to acknowledge the errors it still held.

Back to the polishing process, though. After I’ve completed all of my general corrections in my story I’ll move on to more targeted ones. I’ll do an entire read-through where I only resolve those complex plot-holes and weak scenes I mentioned above. I’ll cut and paste sections around and brainstorm ideas until I can unfold all of the wrinkles in my story.

Then I’ll do an in-depth dive into grammar. For this I recommend putting together a cheat-sheet of core principles that each sentence can be tested against. Don’t move on from sentence until you are convinced it either satisfies every rule or else is a justified exception to it.

I also strongly recommend one set of read-throughs just for evaluating the cadence of the story. When you have spent so much time focusing on individual words and sentences you’ve probably lost sight of the bigger picture. Each phrase may flow wonderfully now, but do the themes still do so as well?

As with before, it is of utmost importance to maintain that fresh perspective while you are working. If you haven’t already, try reading your work out loud for a change. Sentences that seemed fine in your head may sound clunky when you have to speak them. If there’s a friend or family member willing to read through it, offer it to them for a their opinion. Bring your work to a writing group to get feedback as well. Just be sure that you aren’t asking for opinions on a piece that is still laden with misspellings and narrative faux pas. If you do, that’s all your readers will be able to comment on. It’s just too rough for them to see anything else.

One other tip I would offer is that you use some sort of version controlled software to write your story in. If you’re not familiar with that term an example would be Google Docs where at any time you can look back at all the edits you have made and examine previous iterations of the same document. There are two benefits to this. The first is that it allows you to make changes without the fear of losing any previous iterations. Sometimes we go back and forth on how a scene should play out and its nice to be able to swap between options as needed. Another neat feature is that you can provide a boost to your motivation when you’re feeling low. With a few clicks of a button you can see the journey of your work from its rough genesis to the quality novel that stands before you today. If you were able to make it this far, surely you can make it to the next level, too.

Now it would disingenuous of me to suggest that I hold myself to this regime for each of my blog posts. For these I have a deadline I must meet, and while I try to follow these steps for as long as I can, sooner or later I have to just accept that my craft is good enough and move forward with it. I think there is a value to learning how to work with deadlines, but for my longer, more personal writings I absolutely do strive give them the thorough treatment. I think that they deserve my best, and it really is amazing to see how much better a story becomes once all of the clutter gets out of its way.

Next time you pick up your favorite novel, remind yourself that you do not see all the hours of labor and crumpled early drafts that went into its creation. It was not always the polished, final product that you hold today, at one point it looked much like your own flawed and error-riddled manuscript. The difference between great authors and amateurs is simply their willingness to persist in the hard labor of improving their story. Thus all that stands between you and your masterpiece is a simple decision, the decision to roll up your  sleeves, and get to work.

Over these next three days I am going to write up a short story for Thursday’s blog post. At the end of that story I am going to let you peek behind the curtain at its earliest form and each iteration that followed, leading up to the finished product. Obviously I will be using the processes and tips that I have just illustrated to bring my work through those varied iterations. Given the short time constraint, I am sure there will yet remain a great deal of correction to be done on my story, but hopefully it’ll be enough to convince you of the value of my approach. I’ll see you then!

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