Yesterday I learned that a story I'd had high hopes for, "Fun and Games," didn't make the final rounds for an anthology I'd hoped to be published in. Downcast at first, I reminded myself that there's reasons for rejection. I reviewed the tale. I found it fresh, funny and heartwarming. Then I realized that the book I'd submitted it to might be meant as something you'd buy for a bride, a newlywed, or for somebody celebrating an anniversary. In that context, my story wouldn't have been particularly uplifting...since I was reflecting on my relationship with my deceased spouse.
If I'd not been so enamored with my basic thesis, and had put this story away for a week or two, in revisiting it, I'd have realized it needed reworking for this particular market, or, better yet, that I should consider sending it elsewhere.
I won't give up easily on this story...I'm certain there's a home for it somewhere. But I remembered a valuable lesson I'd learned a long while ago. Never forget the reader over your shoulder. Will this sentence be clear to the reader? Will that reader find the prose harsh or harmonic? Will that reader understand the message you thought you'd sent?
This week I'm editing a novel aimed for the Young Adult market. The manuscript boasts some well-developed characters, a compelling plot, and some superb commentary on the meaning of poetry. But it's also cluttered with some clunky and confusing prose. I find myself making endless revisions, mostly minor deletions and insertions...all for the sake of that mysterious specter lurking in the background...the reader!
When I was an English major back in the early '60s, a professor recommended a book by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Reader over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose. Hands down, it's the best book I ever read on how to revise. It emphasizes clarity and consistency, and better yet, shows its readers how to achieve these ends.
I used this book when I taught high school English and journalism back in the early '60s. I recommend it today...and, amazingly, over fifty years later, this remarkable guide to good writing continues to be still available on Amazon.com.
One Amazon reviewer who calls himself Irritated, and who likely teaches English composition, says this:
"If your students refuse to learn how important it is to focus on INDIVIDUAL WORDS-- if they insist on thinking that it is sufficient to 'get their point across in a rough way'-- if their sentences are as a result sometimes nonsensical, suggest this book. And then make them read it-- including the appendix at the back.
"Among other valuable aspects, the book uses examples of bad writing from famous authors-- simultaneously reassuring the student that a mistake can happen to the best of us, and reminding the student that vigilance is always necessary."
Here's validation on the reason to revise from George Plimpton's The Paris Review interview with Ernest Hemingway:
Do you do any rewriting as you read up to the place you left off the day before? Or does that come later, when the whole is finished?
I always rewrite each day up to the point where I stopped. When it is all finished, naturally you go over it. You get another chance to correct and rewrite when someone else types it, and you see it clean in type. The last chance is in the proofs. You’re grateful for these different chances.
How much rewriting do you do?
It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.
Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Getting the words right.