Is writing well impossible?

By Caitlin Kelly

I had an interesting conversation recently with another journalist, who writes columns and features. She wondered if some people see what she and I do for a living as impossibly difficult, something you just have a talent for, or you don’t.

Here’s an image that may, or may not, comfort or surprise you:


It’s what fiction writers love to call their WIP — a work in progress. This is one page of a story, a narrative memoir, I was recently commissioned to produce by a major American women’s magazine.

This is the revision I was asked for by the first, of several, editors. I’ve never met her or spoken to her beyond a brief conversation about this piece. That’s typical, these days. At my level of experience, I’m expected to know exactly what’s expected of a “narrative memoir” and how to produce it to deadline. Which, of course, I did, as I did with this revision.

Which was still deemed “not there yet.”

Magazine journalism — especially some genres — is a team sport. I have to be ready for even more editors’ questions and comments.

What I’ve shown here is my own second or third revision of the second version, before I cleaned it up and sent it in.

You’ll notice a few things:

— I tightened and shortened a few sentences, cutting every possible excess word. I worked for a year as a reporter for a tabloid newspaper here in New York, 2005-2006, and it changed my writing for the better, forever. I try to use as few words as possible to convey my ideas. I also have a tight word limit for this piece, 1,700 words, encompassing my life from age 14 to today, multiple decades. Stuff has to go!

— I joined two sentences into a paragraph. Sometimes they just flow better. Or not.

— At the start of one sentence, I cut a word and inserted one later there.

— That crossed-out sentence at the bottom of the page, an after-thought, clearly, felt like a great metaphor — until I double-checked the meaning of the word I thought I wanted and I was wrong. Then I re-thought the whole idea and discarded it as intrusive and distracting, no matter how lovely a phrase it was. And it was; had I more room, I might have included it. But I don’t. This is called “killing your darlings. ” You get really good at lexical assassination if you stay in this game a while.

The reason I’m sharing this is to show the process, which no one ever sees.

By the time we read anyone’s work — no matter the medium — it’s been polished, revised, edited and re-edited.

So the final product, for most writers, is that of a tremendous amount of prior conceptualizing, framing, thinking, reporting, researching, interviewing, analyzing, re-thinking, writing — (look how far down in the list this is!) — re-writing, editing, re-editing, revising, revising again.

(This post, by the way, went through six revisions before I hit “publish” — the last one, about New York, went through 15.)

Even when I edit myself, I’m always applying three filters, three editing styles, all at once and unconsciously:

Structural. Does this piece flow? Does it have rhythm? Does the beginning pull you in and keep you? How do I feel about the ending? Should some sections (as my editor suggested, and I did) be moved much higher in the story?

Line-editing. How does this sentence sound? Is it too short? Too long? Does one paragraph transition smoothly into the next? When and where am I choosing to use a line space? (Helpful for marking transitions in time or place within a narrative. I learned this on some of my very first paid stories, while in college.) Am I repeating words, phrases or ideas — and to what effect?

Copy-editing. (Should that word have a hyphen?) Looking for spelling and grammatical errors and making sure I have names and numbers correct.

Great writing — (even crappy writing, after it’s finally published) is an iceberg — you’re only seeing the final, visible 10 percent of it!

41 thoughts on “Is writing well impossible?

  1. “The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” – Maya Angelou

    That is an exceptionally hard thing to do!

  2. Tell me about it! I’ve been writing for years, I’ve gotten pieces published, and I’ve gotten some very good reviews on some of it. What most of my readers don’t know is that what they’re reading is only the final incarnation of a veeeeery long process of writing and editing. It’s a long, arduous process, and it’s only gotten slightly easier after so many years of practice and trial and error. It’s very difficult, though it’s well worth the hard work.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. Nothing I love better than to scour through a work-in-progress. People who don’t write for publication think there’s something magical about the way it all comes together. We know better.

    I did something like this when I was teaching an adult-ed class in Creative Writing. I was working on a feature story for the Detroit Free Press and my editor asked for revisions–mainly cutting and clarifying. I made copies of my original and my final revision, including the chicken-scratching, and then I presented it to my class as a lesson in effective rewriting.

    To a person, it was their favorite lesson. They loved that I could make fun of myself over some really clunky wording, and that they could see and understand how much better it became with some honest self-critiquing and heavy-duty slicing.

    Some of them came back the next semester and wanted to know if I had another one full of mistakes that they could “learn from”. Ha!

    1. Thanks!

      You know, then, very well this process — and how secret it usually remains. I think everyone who teaches writing should do this — so people can see how many decisions we make (and change!) and make again — and then our editors make for us (!) before it’s published. I think people put tremendous pressure on themselves (needlessly and unfairly) to be “perfect” when no professional writer I know even tries for that impossible standard.

      One of my favorite pictures of me was taken by my husband while I was revising my first book — my chair is surrounded by crumpled pages. That’s the real story.

    1. Thanks for the kind words!

      Now you see how many of them end up on the cutting room floor (as it were.) My tabloid year was truly life-changing in forcing me — with very little space compared to writing (as I had since college) for broadsheets (like the NYTimes) I had to re-learn how to write. I once had barely 1,000 words to tell a quite complicated story about gentrification in Harlem and thought it was impossible to do well in so short a space. It wasn’t.

      My favorite lesson from the News: “Get the quote.” It has since saved me a lot of time in reporting.

  4. Great info Caitlin. I don’t remember small details from college classes except for one, it was on business writing. That’s where I learned to edit, and edit and edit. One reason why I am not quick with publishing new posts because if a post I write looks like a keeper at all I put my own through many edits. I think back to editing often when I read someone else’s work, didn’t they learn economize on words!? But then again, with essays sometimes the ones I see published just fall flat. There’s no voice. They have been changed for marketing reasons and edited to the point they have no style or draw for me anymore. Sometimes a few extra words, choice ones, make all the difference. It’s interesting looking at the edited draft photo above, I wonder if sometimes the editors you face just do that because they have to show they did something, show their worth, rather than an actual need to make an edit?

    1. Thanks much…

      Hell, yeah, people like to do stuff to copy. I did appreciate the first editor’s comments and questions; this draft is much stronger.
      But three more editors ahead, FFS. And this is a personal essay about a delicate and difficult issue, me and my mother and how I left her home at 14. The first full revision, after editing, took five hours; every single person is — as you say — likely going to want to put their mark on it and God only knows what will be left. It is a very personal piece and requires graceful writing. I may withdraw it and lose a LOT of expected/needed income if I have to. We’ll see.

  5. It’s funny the wrong impressions people get about writing, because, as you and the comments relay, they only see a finished product. Editing is such a critical and necessary part of the process and one of my favorite parts. I’ve fairly carnivorous at editing, slashing and burning until much of what I’ve written is gone. I’m hoping to get faster at it, because even on blog posts, I do no less than 25 revisions. It gets a little ridiculous!

    1. Wow. That’s intense. The most I think I’ve ever done was 15, and that was because I kept finding and adding new links and material.

      I admire your zeal but could never spend that much time on it.

      1. You know my fave saying…the perfect is the enemy of the good.

        There IS no perfect and who knows what’s “good” anyway? Some of my best stuff comes out quickly. It can get turgid and stiff if you rework it too much.

        My analogy is when whipped cream becomes butter…ain’t no going back!

  6. Most of the writing I do is technical writing for my day job. Our process usually involves a subject matter expert drafting a document. Then I get it and have to completely rewrite the thing because it isn’t in any semblance of order or clarity, then review it with the originator to make sure I didn’t get anything wrong, then submit it to my manager and subsequently to my director for their review. The originator and my manager are no problem. My director… ugh…

    Most of the documents I get back have the same problems that I have to deal with.
    – He’s placed arrows and squiggles all over the place making it so that I have to be as much cartographer as writer. Really? He can’t learn those simple editing marks we’ve been using since grade school? *sigh*
    – His favorite phrases must be inserted in EVERYWHERE. Every policy statement is “as applicable.” Functional synonyms should always stand side-by-side. For example: Division/Program or Coordinator/Administrator.
    – Everything must be made to sound more important than it is. Somehow our purchasers have stopped being called purchasers and are now “Procurement Project Managers,” or, better yet, “Certified Procurement Project Managers/Procurement Coordinators.” Because that way he can get his synonyms and importance wrapped into one nice statement.

    Fortunately, over the last six years I’ve been able to break some of his bad habits, but he’s still effectively my editor. When I combine this with the courses I’ve taken that involved a great deal of writing, I realize that my professors have also been my editors. Much of the time their criticisms have been helpful, but there have been others that the criticism was completely based upon their personality and preferences. For example, the English Lit. professor that was deeply offended and marked my paper down a full letter grade for referring to a character in a short story as a “resource.”

    To paraphrase: People are NOT resources! They aren’t owned bits and bobs to get the job done. They’re PEOPLE.

    Ok, then why do we have a human RESOURCES department?

    It’s all in the eye of the beholder. I think the one big thing I struggle with in regards to editing is not taking the critiques of my work personally. It’s either practical feedback that should be applied or just that other person’s worldview interfering with my well written work. But you know, we’ll just have to take it all with a grain of salt, as applicable.

  7. thanks for sharing a very interesting look at what goes on behind the scenes. i’m sure the great majority of people have no idea what goes into a piece of writing, prior to its publication. thus, the need for highly-skilled editors.

    1. Thanks…I wondered that…I know when I watch a film that some scenes were filmed 10 or 20 times and much was edited from the final version. I wonder why people wouldn’t know or assume the same of writing?

      But maybe it’s a comforting fantasy that it all just spills out perfectly. I wish!

  8. Avery

    I don’t revise much when I write something…then again I have never been published when I was submiiting my short stories. I think I need to revise my stuff more..I was so busy typing that I didn’t realize this morning my cartridge in my printer ran out of ink. I tried to get a cartridge that sold blue ink but they only have black……

  9. Avery

    It’s funny; the kids I counsel (I am an assistant high school guidance counselor after the two schools merged 2 years ago), their writing needs a lot of work. They have to do essays for college and personal statements and I end up having to proof their work and read it. Some of them write pretty good though. This was a thougful column.

    1. I’ve heard that many students leaving high school — even college — write very poorly. It’s not a good start for the world of work, where writing skills seem to be as important as ever.


    1. There might be more but when I stopped to think about it (and I really had to stop and realize how automatic this has become for me over the years), I realized that this is part of the process.

  10. Avery

    I had tried to see before if I could make any money from writing, it has proved hard except for that 7.50 an hour job I was doing on the side writing content. They didn’t ask me to revise much. I am going to see if I can blog for morney. Thanks.

  11. I often hear the opposite – people believing that anyone can write. Thinking, “It can’t be that hard,” without knowing the vast amount of work behind the finished product. I suppose they’re right, in a sense, that anyone CAN, if they’re willing to put in the work. But very few are. Thank you for your honesty.

    1. Thanks..

      I see that attitude a lot, and have blogged about it many times. It appalls me. Few of us dare to assume we could “just” pick up law or dentistry or carpentry or working as a paid chef. Hey, they’ll find out. 🙂

  12. Avery

    You know what, you’re right. I am going to call them (my email’s still not working) and see if they will give me a raise for this side job. At least up to $9-10 an hour. Thanks for the reply.

  13. Reblogged this on JeKaren Taylor, Writer and commented:
    So often we put our thoughts out into the world, and as writers, we are judged more harshly on our ability to do so. The work that you see is only one of many drafts, and even the final cut may not be exactly what it should be. Could you be a writer? Share your thoughts below.

  14. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s