“We’re misnamed,” Mark Kramer begins. He addresses a room of writers, people who willingly signed up for a conference called “The Power of Narrative.” In between sessions, these people subconsciously compete to out humblebrag each other, their NPR pieces eclipsed by someone else’s second book to be topped by someone’s ongoing project for Radiolab.
“About five percent of what we do is writing,” Kramer continues. “Blah, vomit, cabin in the woods, sunshine… but it’s the 95 percent that turns blurts into significance. The blank page is terror, bad prose is something we can work with.”
“Revision: Precepts for making changes” sounds like the dullest of possible sessions, but afterward no one denied it might be the most vital. Kramer’s message came across as soon as he finished that first line. Talent, creativity and inspiration may get headlines; dedication, perseverance and labor get things done.
Kramer founded the entire BU Narrative Conference nearly 20 years ago, and his career in journalism reaches back even farther. As such, he showcased a keen awareness of how modern journalism’s constant push for instantaneous seeped into the revision process. In a post-typewriter age, Kramer notes, “revisions start at the third sentence.” Most of us begin tweaking sentences and phrases for verbal efficiency, voice, or other preferences immediately. These micro changes, as Kramer calls them, change the macro picture of a piece before the author even sees the macro picture.
As such, revisions today rarely happen in clear stages (i.e. first draft, second draft and onward). “The biggest pleasures are reporting and the fifth draft onward,” Kramer said. “Early drafts have a lot of anguish.”
Practically speaking, Kramer encouraged the room of writers-turned-revisionists to keep the reader in mind whenever approaching a true round of editing. Does the piece need more “stuff?” That round of revisions should involve additional field work. Does a reader have everything she needs to see what you see? Revise with structure in mind, defined by Kramer as “what the reader needs next.” And even if a piece presents all the information in some logical order, does it compel a reader to continue? If no, time for a round of revisions with pace in mind (“It’s the readers’ sense of urgency to continue.’)
As nebulous as all that can sound, Kramer supported it with a number of micro level revisionist suggestions to clean copy and better utilize it in the name of structure, pace, theme and other writer ideas.
“Make lean copy,” he insisted. Swap a number of to-be verbs for action and narrative suddenly surfaces. And circling “when” and “as” allows you to instead use “that life time supply of periods.” Don’t get him started with “of whom” or “for which,” but all these small tweaks draw readers in:
No: Sally was excited. This was chaos. As she watched…
Yes: Sally’s eyes grew. She watched and watched. Glass shattered, screams belted out.
Kramer sprinkled in a number of other seemingly unrelated tidbits. “Start scenes as late as possible, end them as early,” he said. Avoid quoting experts, since a writer can explain things better. “Quote nuance and insight,” Kramer suggested instead. “[Quotes] should convey personality, not necessarily data.”
Overall, the journalist prefers a minimalist strategy: use the least explanation necessary, the least amount of scene/story/etc. And in that effort, he’d suggest the least amount of effort too. “Writing passages or writing sentences in the field is helpful,” Kramer said. “It’s fine to have [phrases, sentences] as pieces before you have all the reporting done.” After all, blank pages create struggle. Random segments of thought? The real work starts from there.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Nic McPhee.