Friday, September 03, 2010

Clackety Clack Clack Clack

“What I don’t write is as important as what I write.” – Jamaica Kincaid

The first chapter of the memoir I’ve been working on for several years has never pleased me. I set out to revise it, but none of the usual techniques worked. Several people read it and made suggestions which I tried to implement to no avail. I reread the chapter and realized I was still too close to it. I let it sit awhile, but when I picked it up again, it still felt too close. I tried reading it aloud. Still too close. Then I remembered a technique I learned in journalism school in the early 1980's.

In Professor Norman Dohn’s news reporting class, if a story wouldn’t cooperate, he told us to “run it back through the typewriter.” What he meant was, retype it from the beginning. In those days you actually used a typewriter. Since I haven't owned such a machine in more than a decade, I decided retyping it on my laptop would have to do. I printed the first chapter, set up my typing stand, opened a blank document and began retyping the chapter as if it were someone else’s work.

As I typed, Professor Dohn’s advice paid off. If a sentence didn't flow from the one before it, my fingers became unwilling to type it. But here’s the real magic. My fingers wanted to type something else – something better. Of course I could have forced myself to retype the annoying sentence, but I didn't. I let my fingers move as they wished. Also, if a paragraph or sentence seemed out of place, as I typed, I made a note to move it. As I continued typing, the correct place for this bit of text became apparent. In retyping, my fingers found vivid images, lively dialogue, and improved structure. I was revising, just not in the usual way. The chapter still needs work, but I'm making progress.

Do you use any uncommon revision techniques? I'd love to hear what's working for you.