Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Three Rs Revisited for Writers

Reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic – the "Three Rs" of our school days. I’ve been thinking that we need a new version for writers: Research, (W)riting, and Revision. And since most of us had our favorite subjects in school and others we weren’t so crazy about, I will confess that I have favorites and not-so-favorites among the writerly three. And the writing part of writing is not my favorite part, odd though that may seem. For now, let’s take a quick look at these three parts of the big picture.

Writing. That’s the big "W," er, "R" in the Writer’s Life, no? No. Okay, yes and no. At least that’s the case for me. I don’t like writing all that much most of the time. Writing is hard. Writing is messy and often ugly and sometimes takes up hours for meager results. It’s frustrating. And then every so often something happens, a miracle of sorts. A path opens through the brambles and words dance along the path and ideas blossom on the edge and.... Sorry, I was starting to have some fun there, dancing along with those unedited words and phrases.

Which is where the second R comes into play. At least I think it’s play. I hear students and even some aspiring writers say they hate revising but it’s my almost-favorite-part of being a writer. The revision phase is when I get to move things around, and clean things up. Add a little here, subtract a little there. Oh wait, that’s one of those old-fashioned Rs. (Or maybe everything really is interconnected!) When I have a book or article or poem or essay in the works, I’m always happy to get past the initial writing so that I can begin to revise, a process that actually includes a lot of writing. And re-revising. And so on.

My favorite part of writing might be said not to me writing at all. It’s the research. I adore the research, and luckily for me, there’s always something to look up. Right now I’m wrapping up the sequel to Drop Dead on Recall, and just in the past hour I had to look up what kind of garter snake might be gliding along a path between a river and a corn field in Indiana, and what kinds of prices are paid for critically endangered parrots smuggled into the U.S. The down side of research is that I always wander away from the main subject. (Did you know garter snake saliva is actually toxic, but for humans, not so much?) The plus side of research is that I always wander away from the main subject and learn something new and fascinating. (Did you know garter snake saliva is actually toxic, but for humans, not so much? A writer never knows when that might come in handy!) One of my favorite books on writing has long been William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn, no doubt because that has always been why I write. Many writers have said "to learn" is why they write, too.

Now, because I have a book to wrap up, I will go learn a little more. Happily, I’m mostly revising now, and researching a few details, and writing a little. Let’s hope it all adds up.

Sheila's first Animals in Focus mystery, Drop Dead on Recall, will be out from Midnight Ink in October. To stay informed, check out updates on Facebook, Twitter, or Sheila's blog.


Lois Winston said...

Sheila, I've always felt writing is play and revising is work. I guess we're all different. The only thing that matters in the end is that we wind up with a book we're proud of. Doesn't matter how we get there. We all have a different process.

Shannon Baker said...

Nice post. I'm with Lois. I like the writing part because I just get to wander wherever my mind takes me. Revising takes so much more discipline!

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

Yep! That's why I always tell my students to experiment - try different approaches and see what works. Sometimes a new way into one of the steps changes everything for us - even changing the time of day we do the work. There's no right way, and the only wrong way is to do nothing!

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

On reflection I realize that I really do like writing when I have unlimited time. I dislike it when I know I have to leave it in a relatively short time (by which I might mean 2-3 hours). I have occasionally taken myself away by myself so that I could write whenever I want, and those escapes are always VERY productive. But revising I can do in short spurts, and feel I'm getting somewhere. Ah, the writer's brain is a fascinating thing. (At least to writers!)

Deborah Sharp said...

I love research, but I adore revising ... guess that makes me odd writer out. It just seems so much EASIER than the having to dream up stuff stage you do while writing the first draft. Torture!!
Nice post ... and love that pix of the literary dog.

Heather Murphy said...

I prefer writing more. Revising is stressful to me. I like the research but I, too, often get sidetracked :)
I like the new 3 R's!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Sheila, thanks for sharing thoughts about your process. I'm in that "waiting for a miracle" spot on the current WIP, and will be glad to slog through so I have something to revise. Much more satisfying.