Years ago I enrolled in my first graduate class: an overview of literary criticism by the chairman of the English department. For many of my classmates with B.A.s in English, the course served as a refresher. They already knew about deconstruction and close reading and Marxist interpretations. They understood reader-response criticism, and they could write one-thousand-word critiques of poems.
I, on the other hand, graduated with a mass communications degree. I had worked as a journalist after college. I wrote in inches and structured my articles according to an inverted pyramid. I was putting a single space between sentences before it was cool, and I never restated something after I quoted it. That was a waste of space.
My degree in communications did not prepare me for the work of literary criticism that I was assigned early in the course. In my critique of Joseph Brodsky’s “The Star of the Nativity,” I poured my heart out trying to find my way into the poem, but I didn’t know what I was doing. When my professor handed back my paper with no grade—he wasn’t grading anything until the end of the semester when we would submit a portfolio of all our work—he simply wrote, “This is a wonderful reading of the poem, but you need to start your analysis from here,” directly after my last sentence. He had underlined “start”; he was asking me to start over.
After I spent that night’s class choking back tears, I went home and began again. With a few other notes my professor had written in the margins and the instructions he had given to the class as a whole, I went back into my paper and rewrote it. But not from scratch. The version I turned in next contains traces of the original. Most of the introduction was lifted straight from the first draft. Many of the same words, sentences, and observations are included in both. But the next draft read differently; it was a completely different analysis that elicited a completely different response from my professor: “You’ve done a wonderful job with this poem. You’ve got the central idea of what’s supposed to happen with a critical analysis.”
He also offered more suggestions, and I worked on it at least one more time before submitting my final piece in the portfolio. On that last version, he penned the name of a publication that might be willing to publish it with just a little more work.
Somewhere along the way, I lost the official letter my professor wrote about my coursework, but I still have the handwritten note he included when he handed back my portfolio in class. Even though he said I had “already earned an A,” he made a few more suggestions for improving the work. “Making the changes would make already fine work better,” he wrote. And then he invited me to schedule a meeting to talk about it.
I was happy for the A, of course. What student wouldn’t be? But it was a different A than I had ever earned before. In the past, I had been rewarded for my writing, but rarely for my rewriting, for my work of revision. In the meeting I eventually had with the professor, he said it was my work ethic that actually had earned me the grade, and by that he meant my willingness to go back again and again. Honestly, I think it was the first time I had been given the opportunity.
A recent Quartz article examines what happened during—not just as a result of—the revision process when one author wrote his latest novel using GitHub, a version management and file hosting website normally reserved for writing computer code. Author Gregory Mazurek, whose pen name is Gregory Gershwin, uses GitHub in his day job as a software designer. But when he was looking for a platform for his next book that would easily convert his work into an EPUB version, he realized GitHub would do the trick. Knowing that GitHub also would create a new copy of his novel each time a change was made—a function important to software designers—hadn’t really seemed important at first.
“Once his book, Benjamin Buckingham And The Nightmare’s Nightmare, was finished, Mazurek publicly shared the GitHub project so anyone could see the changes he made to the story along the way,” Mike Murphy explained in the Quartz article. “Mazurek said that he originally hadn’t intended to make the project public, that he had just used GitHub as a way of keeping track of his thoughts and making sure he could access his work from multiple computers. But after he showed the project to his friends, they convinced him that there was artistic value in sharing the changes made along the way, as well as the novel itself.”
Exactly what is the artistic value of iteration, of seeing each version of a manuscript from first draft to desired finished copy?
Some changes to Mazurek’s novel were nothing more than correcting a misspelling or grammatical error; others created a key change in the plot or moved the reader more logically through the setting. The artistry from one version to the next was difficult for me to evaluate. Was the story better in the final version? I think so. The changes Mazurek made seemed to enhance the plot and tighten the language. Though I didn’t read each change, I saw the story grow, develop, and evolve. The movement of the writer’s work, the movement in the writer himself—these were where the magic happened. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of literary magic we rarely get to see.
In her Atlantic essay “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators in the World,” author Megan McArdle suggests that part of the reason some writers struggle to sit down and do the work of writing is because they overvalue the idea that natural talent is all that is needed for great writing. And when they aren’t sure whether they themselves possess such talent, they worry that they will never really be great writers. This creativity-devastating thought cycle, says McArdle, can be traced back to high school and college English classes.
“Think about how a typical English class works,” McArdle writes:
“You read a “great work” by a famous author, discussing what the messages are, and how the author uses language, structure, and imagery to convey them. You memorize particularly pithy quotes to be regurgitated on the exam, and perhaps later on second dates. Students are rarely encouraged to peek at early drafts of those works. All they see is the final product, lovingly polished by both writer and editor to a very high shine. When the teacher asks, “What is the author saying here?” no one ever suggests that the answer might be “He didn’t quite know” or “That sentence was part of a key scene in an earlier draft, and he forgot to take it out in revision.
In fact, the iterative process of art in general is a hidden gem waiting for the right technology to reveal its magic. In a Matisse exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art a couple of years ago, among Matisse’s work was a collection of photographs that revealed the various “drafts” of his painting Large Reclining Nude (The Pink Nude) on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Not only do they show the progression of the work to the final iconic version, they also show Matisse doing what Matisse is known for: moving from the concrete to the abstract, rearranging toward harmony in his work, experiencing and then capturing the essence of the truth he was trying to communicate.
Finished art inspires us to write and create better; it gives us models of excellence to aim for and achieve. Studying the iterations of finished pieces—seeing errors identified and corrected, observing style choices made and executed, watching content develop and clarify—reminds us that “better” takes work—it’s a process.
Maybe this was why my graduate school professor could tell this aspiring writer that I was already the writer I wanted to be. Not because I was producing perfectly crafted first drafts, but because I had learned the value of revising and was willing to do the work to get there.