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Grammar Is Sexy

What My Freshman English Professor Taught Me about Drafts and Rewrites

Editing sucks. It’s boring. No one likes it. Not even me.

While I love helping other writers with their work, I hate editing my own writing.

It makes sense that editing your own work sucks. You’ve already spent hours on the first draft. You’ve fought for each word, kept writing even when you wanted to give up, and now you just want to be done.

I call this the ”A for effort” approach, and up until my second semester of college, it guided my writing process.

If I had a paper due for a class, I’d write it in a couple hours, read it over a couple times, and then turn it in. And I got solid grades and positive feedback, so I figured my method was sound. This approach got me through all of high school and one semester of college English.

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But then I had a professor who changed the way I looked at writing and rewriting. She made us labor over our drafts. It was my first experience in a ”writing workshop.” If you’ve studied creative writing at all, I’m sure you’re familiar with the process, but for those of you who haven’t, it goes something like this:

You write your story or poem or essay (or even novel, in some MFA workshops), bring a copy for each person in the class, and sit there while your classmates and teacher tear it apart.

Okay, so it’s not (always) that dramatic, but it can feel like it.

Just like pulling a rotten tooth, however, it’s for the best. When you submit to no-holds-barred critique, you grow as a writer.

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And that’s what this professor had us do with our final paper. Except we didn’t just workshop it once. This professor put us through writing boot camp, having us revise the essay three times before she was satisfied.

And she wouldn’t settle for half-assed revisions that just changed a couple words–she wanted substantive edits that improved the flow, grammar, and argument. If we needed to delete and rewrite an entire paragraph or page, so be it.

Professionals Are Perfectionists

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When someone from the class complained about how much work it was to revise an essay so many times, the professor told us a story of her most recent piece of published writing: a 100 word foreword to a literary anthology:

”It might take you a couple seconds to read,” she said, ”but I spent weeks refining those 100 words.”

She agonized over them until they were perfect, no more and no less than necessary to convey the point. This is the kind of labor that professional writers (and editors) put into their work.

Now, it’s not always realistic or necessary to be that painstaking. For everyday emails, a couple read throughs before sending is fine. Even your blog doesn’t have to be perfect. No one’s paying to read it, after all.

But a contract with a client? An article for a national publication? The manuscript of a book? You better believe I’m hiring an editor, a proofreader, and even consulting a lawyer if necessary, not to mention spending hours revising on my own.

Wouldn’t you agree it’s worth the time and money?

The 100 Word Challenge

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What would you write if you had just 100 words to explain a concept, introduce yourself, or woo a romantic interest? What if your life depended on it? The life of a loved one?

I bet you’d have no trouble revising it dozens of times until it was perfect.

That’s why this week, I challenge you to write something that’s 100 words at the most. It can be a story, an explanation, an introduction, or even a joke.

Just make it the best you can.

If you need inspiration, there’s even a whole website dedicated to the idea called 100 Word Story, featuring stories and essays that all number 100 words or less. Their about page is brilliant, though it’s actually 186 words….

Since it wouldn’t be fair to avoid my own challenge, here’s my attempt. I think the topic is evident:

I sometimes write in exchange for money, but it’s not why I write. I write thanks to my high school teachers and my college professors. I write because of anger and boredom and curiosity and joy. To discover. To think. Often to educate. Hopefully to inspire. Possibly to connect. Reluctantly to promote…myself.

Because I don’t care for sports. Because it was easier than algebra, more interesting than biology, and more fun than chemistry. Because my parents encouraged it.

Not because I desire affluence, but definitely because I prefer truth.

Because it’s safer than logging?

My professor gave it to us straight: rewriting sucks.  But rewriting is where good writing becomes great writing. It might seem daunting to edit your 1000 word blog post, but I bet you can manage 100 words.

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Did you take the challenge? Post your effort in the comments or email it to me at ransom@grammarissexy.net.

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Note: John Irving quote from an Academy of Achievement interview.

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