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September 21, 2003


by John Clay, editor-in-chief

Look at virtually any book on the shelves of a bookstore. The writing on its pages has passed through many hands more than we realize. The author wrote it. But many others have scoured and contemplated it and let the author know their thoughts. And the author has made use of those thoughts as an invaluable resource.

The process may have gone something like this: The author writes and revises and then, when ready, elicits reactions from friends and colleagues. These reactions might range from insightful to trivial to annoying. Yet all of them spur the author's thinking and tell the author something about how readers will interpret the text. The author takes it all in and rewrites, and then elicits the help of friends and colleagues again. Every text is an instrument for communication, an instrument for the communing of minds. So in the writing process, other minds are an invaluable tool for the author. Taking it all in again, the author pulls together a final draft. Very likely the author will ask someone to review this draft one last time before it is sent to a publisher.

At an interested publishing company, an entire staff is called into action. The text may be reviewed by an acquisitions editor, a copyeditor, and—if considerable revisions are needed—a developmental editor. If the company is large, each of these editors might be aided by assistants. Revisions and rewrites are requested once, or twice, or more if necessary. Finally the text is ready for the reproduction team—the typesetter, proofreader, and printer. Without even counting the reproduction team (who after all are not involved in the writing process itself), easily six to twelve persons have polished the text to a finish.

There are exceptions of course. The poet William Bronck said that a poem should never be rewritten. The words on the page stand or fall, just as they are. But his tactic is rare. In general, the degree of social involvement in the writing process will grow with the length of the text but diminish with the growing experience of the writer. Rarely will the social element disappear altogether, but neither should it overwhelm. Writing is neither purely solitary nor purely social. Good writing generally demands passage through both realms.

The first draft, and maybe even the second, is best written in solitude. A brand new work of writing is a delicate thing. It represents the first moments in which the turbulent, fleeting thoughts of a human mind take concrete form. Reactions from other readers can bombard the new work like surf breaking on a sand castle. Everything might be thrown right back into turbulence. Keep the new work to yourself. Don't read it to anyone else just yet. Don't even talk about it very much, if at all. The telling of the story can displace the act of writing itself. At this early stage, it is better to gain a fresh perspective on the work not through a fresh pair of eyes, but through your own eyes refreshed with the passage of time. Leave the work for a few days (or much longer, if needed) and then read it anew.

The second or third draft is durable enough to share with friends and colleagues, perhaps even with a writers group. By now, you will have a sense of the text's strengths and weaknesses, and the feedback from others can help refine your thoughts. Let the feedback sink in. It is not a matter of acceding to every critical remark that anyone makes. But it is a matter of contemplating it all. There is often a kernel—no, let's say a free-floating particle—of truth, even in the most misguided remark. It will be enough to inspire a rethinking of some part of the text that deserves a rethinking; something you will fix in your own way but which might have gone unfixed if no one had offered their feedback. In writing, as in life, the solitary and the social both have their place.

© 2003 John Clay

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