Rewriting Is The Job

Something I think that has become obvious this year is that while we think of numbers as objective, empirical data points that tell a specific story, they can be twisted to tell any kind of story you so choose.

All year, Covid reporting has been plagued by which data is being highlighted.

Is it the R number, tracking how fast the spread is happening? Is it new reported cases, ongoing cases, new hospitalisations, new ICU occupancies, death rates?

There are so many ways you can cut the numbers, and each way tells a different story.

The same is true of writing.

It might not be obvious, but writing is very much a numbers game.

Word counts, page counts, the number of hours spent at your desk — the writer’s life is a constant calculation about output. We’re basically an economist’s dream.

You see, I was going to start this email with a wildly exciting update about my word count for the day (1500, or about 2 pages). It’s not bad — 2000 would be better, but I’ve said what I had to say on the day’s topic so that’s that.

But what’s missing from the reporting here is the difference between total output and final product.

Because in actual fact, I probably wrote closer to 3000 words today. I had a lot of ideas and directions to explore. And by lunchtime, when I stopped, I had a lot to delete.

One of the most consistent parts of writing professionally is identifying the material — stuff you’ve already laboured to produce — that has to be thrown away.

In this early stage, this happens a LOT.

You’ll go off in one direction, and then realise that actually, that’s not where you want to take this section. Delete delete delete, goodbye 800 words.

Then you’ll remember a great idea you had a month ago and scribbled down at the time from a different angle, so quick copy/paste/fiddle, and hey presto, there’s half a page.

Everything I’ve written so far for this book, and everything I will write over the next few months, will go through this process.

Every writer has their own approach to managing this.

Some people write for a few hours straight, never stopping to look back, then take a break and go back to edit later.

Others pore over every word, making sure it’s the most perfect and precise choice possible, before moving on to the next.

(I heard about one author who wrote 20 variations of every sentence of his whole book before choosing which to use. If anything like that starts showing up here, please come and put me out of my misery; as far as I am concerned this is procrastination of the most poisonous kind.)

My work tends to fall between those two extremes.

I write a few paragraphs, then go back and read them over again. I fix up anything that’s a mess or unclear, making sure it flows smoothly from the few paragraphs before, and repeat this process for as long as I’m working.

Of course, this approach doesn’t save me from needing a good edit later on — but drafting is the fun bit, the puzzle, the choose-your-own adventure.

Drafting is when you just let your creativity run wild and see where it goes. It doesn’t pay, at this stage, to keep your mind on a tight leash.

Better to have a few imprecise words or an overabundance of ideas, than to choke yourself trying to write the perfect piece first time around.

Because no one ever writes a perfect piece first time around. Every book, every article, every poem worth the name has been rewritten a dozen times.

It might happen in drafting, it might happen in editing, normally both. What’s more important is to accept that rewriting is the job, and to release yourself from perfectionism’s tyranny.

No one works well with a dictator over their shoulder, and perfectionism is a despot.

So here’s a little, probably imperfect, chunk of those 1500 final words from today.

(I do not promise to share the day’s writing in every email because sometimes it will be rubbish and my pride is easily hurt. But hopefully the good days will be worth the wait.)

I was a solitary child and read quickly, inhaling books faster than my parents could supply them. It was a constant point of contention that we only went to the library once a week, because the librarian wouldn’t let me take out more than three books at a time, and I usually got through a book in a morning.

“Well, read it again” was my mother’s advice.

Re-reading thus became a habit I’ve never shaken off, like a Depression-era grandmother who never shook the habit of saving a teaspoon of flour. Even now, it’s a quiet pleasure to pull a book off a shelf and rediscover what I loved so much about it the first time around. Every book becomes a multi-dimensional gift, yielding up something slightly different on each reading, depending on my mood and the goings-on of my life at the time.

This is the same impulse that still drives me through the door of every bookshop I come across. After all these years I’m still hungry for wonder, still anxious that if I don’t get every book I want to read right now, I might never again get the chance to own it. Because it’s not enough just to read the book. I want to own the book, hoard the book, look at it on my shelves every day and pick it up as often as I please. As a result, I have whole shelves in my bookcases that are yet to be read.

Every now and then I have to sanction myself, banning the purchase of any new books until the to-be-read shelves thin out a little. But Present Laura always finds a way around Past Laura’s tyrannical interventions. It doesn’t count if it’s an audiobook. Ebooks don’t take up any room! Just this one. OK just these five.

The ever-expanding shelves are further burdened by the fact that I am a jealous steward of my books and refuse to lend them to anyone, except my Finnish friend, also named Laura, who is the embodiment of responsibility. Nor will I ever give books away, or donate them. They’re mine, and they’re going to stay that way. Not just their physical form — the knowledge and beauty and skill they contain are mine now too. Yes, it means my home is overflowing and moving house is drastically heavier than it might otherwise be, but my books are part of me, like old friends who happily answer a call after years of silence.

I once heard it said that our friends, our loved ones, are receptacles of our memories. We trust them to remember things for us and about us, and thus they become part of us, and we of them. They become the check on our own version of events, the backup drive when our own systems go down. Having people to reflect us back to ourselves gently pushes us to remember, to remain an active participant in this shared collection of memories. It’s a powerful role, and books have long held that same place in my life. Picking up a book I read years ago instantly transports me back to that time when I first discovered it, memories and feelings and fears flooding back with the words.