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:

revision1

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!