When we edit, most of us tend to tinker. We substitute a word or phrase here, we prune a word or two there. We don’t make major changes in any draft. Essentially, we like our own words (who doesn’t?) and we want to keep as many of them as we can. We do that even when we know that a poem or work of fiction or nonfiction that we’ve written isn’t working.
But is tinkering always the best method of fixing something? Many times, when we alter just a little here and there, we are missing an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of a particular draft. It often takes a flawed draft to give us the clue to what our idea really requires. Sometimes the idea needs not what we wrote in our first attempt, or even the fifth attempt. In some cases, we’ve just got to start over.
That may feel like failure. It isn’t. It’s important to see the early drafts of a work of writing not as emeralds, but as tentative experiments, attempts. It’s difficult to do that, since our writings are often as close as we get to our innermost thoughts and deepest insights. But insights usually don’t arrive fully tailored. Sometimes we can’t just sew on a button, we have to begin with a whole new pattern.
I love the example of this sort of editing that I learned about from Professor David Thorburn, who taught the course I took on the modern British novel at Yale around 1973. If I’m not misquoting Professor Thorburn (and my apologies if I am!), D.H. Lawrence wrote his masterpiece, Women in Love, eight separate times.
I don’t mean that Lawrence edited the same manuscript eight times. No, he started all over from Chapter One eight different times. That doesn’t mean he kept nothing from the earlier drafts. No doubt there were sections that worked in the very first version. But each time Lawrence began to write from the beginning with no preconceptions about how the book would progress or turn out—or so I like to think.
I’ve recently been trying out a similar method of editing with my own poems. I find this particularly useful for poetry in a lyric form. If one version doesn’t work, it often is self-defeating to edit that version, since any error ripples through the entire form of the poem. It’s better to start fresh, with new rhymes, for instance, or new repeating elements, possibly snatched from an earlier draft, but reused in a different context.
I recently attempted to write a villanelle for the first time. In a villanelle, the poet has to include two lines that are flexible and resonant enough to appear four times each in the poem.
For instance, take Dylan Thomas’s iconic villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”
In that poem, the two famous refrains are:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
Imagine if Thomas had initially selected as a refrain not one of those lines, but a different line in the poem, say the second line, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day”? It might put too much emphasis on the idea of burning or raving to mention them four times. With four uses of the word “burn,” the poem would have a much more religious undertone, since it would evoke burning in hell. The word “rave” occurring in four places might make give the poem too hysterical a note. If those were not the foci Thomas wanted, the current line 2 would not have worked as a refrain. It would have served his purposes better to start over with a different refrain and rewrite the whole poem, rather than to try to tweak that line in some minor way.
There’s another reason we prefer to tinker rather than to rebuild from the ground up—tinkering is a lot less work. But ultimately, several pieces of flawed work that produce nothing usable are much less productive than a lot of work that results in writing worth sending out into the world.
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe
Other recent posts about writing topics:
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka, The Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry