For some perverse reason, my version of Microsoft Word defaults to an unattractive sans-serif typeface for a new document. It also adds a space between paragraphs—something that drives me nuts. While I've been able to change those quirks on my home computer, my tiny laptop will not let me reset the default.
So when I'm on the go, every time I sit down to write, I start out mildly irritated as I wade through the familiar routine of changing the font to Times New Roman and the size to 12 point. For each new document, I have to check the box that says, in a tone that manages to annoy me every time, "Don't add space between paragraphs of the same style." How I hate that bossy little box.
When I'm finished with those housekeeping moves, I'm ready to write a manuscript that looks, to me, the way manuscripts should look. I like uniformity. When my students hand in their essays, I ask them to use exactly the format that I use. That way, their work will be distinguished by the prose and the ideas, not by the fact that they've used a bizarro typeface or printed it out on pink scented paper.
But one day, maybe because I was feeling lazy, or maybe because I have a perverse streak, I decided to write a draft without going through the normal gyrations of putting it in the "right" style. I used that ugly sans-serif typeface and allowed the extra line between single-spaced paragraphs.
And something funny happened. Without the familiar presentation, my writing looked strange to me. I saw my sentences from a distance, as if someone else had created them. It excited me enough to keep writing. When I went back to revise, the distance provided by the novelty of the presentation allowed me to read and edit with a freshness that I hadn't felt for a while.
I suppose I should have realized that this would happen. Often when I read my own published work it feels unfamiliar. Sometimes I think, "Wow, this is pretty good." Sometimes I cringe and notice flaws and failures that had been invisible to me in the draft on my own computer.
Distance from our own prose serves an important purpose. Usually we get it in a temporal way, allowing manuscripts to lie fallow in desk drawers (in the old days) or now in unopened documents, for however long it takes to come to the work with a fresh focus. When we spend too long revising and messing around with the language, we tend to memorize our own sentences, which can give them a ring of inevitability. That can make them hard to edit, or to jettison.
When we're in the process of creating, we often add ideas, anecdotes, or data that don't really belong. In early drafts, that can be a good thing. The first draft is the get-it-down draft. It's where you get to throw in anything that might turn out to be useful or important. But until you've let a piece of writing sit long enough, it can be difficult to discern the essential from the self-indulgent because everything, when newly minted, looks shiny and good. Just getting words on the page seems like an accomplishment.
In the early days of word processing, I used to print everything out to do my revisions. As I've become accustomed to writing and reading on the screen, I prefer not to waste the paper and so usually edit my drafts in their electronic form. It's easier and more efficient. But I'm not convinced that the final product is as good.
When I see the work printed out, the experience of reading is different. Lines that on the screen seemed perfectly fine can no longer hide their clunkiness. I notice flabby descriptions and ugly adverbs I had overlooked. I see when paragraphs are too long and the work looks uninviting, or when they are so uniform that the writing appears dull and boring even at a quick glance. Similar sentence constructions become more apparent to me on the printed page and seem easier to change. When the work is in one continuous scroll, I'm less likely to be able to see the whole piece. It helps to lay pages next to each other and see how they fit together. That is, after all, how the reader will experience them, at least when they appear in printed publications.
The editor of a glossy magazine for which I write a regular column has, in recent years, begun sending me edited copy on page proofs. In other words, I send him my Word document, he makes changes, and what I get back is a PDF file with pages that have already been laid out. Reading your work in what looks like final form can make it hard to edit, especially if the design is strong and you have the sense that the piece is a done deal.
At first that bothered me. I wondered if my editor was passive-aggressively trying to make me to accept his edits. Then I remembered that his edits are always good and I never quibble. He was skipping a step to save time. There's nothing wrong with that.
Since I know it's not too late to make changes, I get a preview of the experience I'll have when the piece is published in the magazine, and if something makes me cringe—too many paragraphs that start the same way, or a repeated word that jumps off the page when, in manuscript form, it was able to hide—I can catch it before it's committed to print. I've come to rely on the page proofs as a way to do a final edit.
If revision is really a re-vision, a seeing again of what you have done, looking at the work in a different format can help with the process. Instead of waiting for an editor to make changes both in the prose and in the format, I've become more active in doing that myself. To revise fully, we have to look with a critical eye. Although it might seem cheesy and cheap, for me, there's nothing wrong with relying on tricks and tools to help. Even changing the line spacing from double to single shows me things that I couldn't see before.
So sometimes I start writing manuscripts in single-spaced sans-serif Microsoft-selected type. Sometimes, when I'm doing a final careful edit, I'll blow up the font so big it looks like I've written a children's book. That's often when I see real clunkers. Or I'll break down, commit to making recycling waste, and print out the draft that I think is final. That can be painful; I usually end up finding so many things I need to change that I want to give up and go back to the screen, instead of scribbling edits in handwriting that is so infrequently used it's often impossible even for me to read. But when I go back to the screen, things that bugged me on paper no longer seem so bad. That's when I know I have to resort to killing trees to make sure I'm satisfied with the revision.
I think about how it used to be, writing on a typewriter, when making one small correction required an entirely new draft. I wonder if that made me more careful about my word choices, if it caused the writing process to be slower and more deliberate. Perhaps. Probably not. Probably I just let things slide. I never look wistfully back on those days, and I suspect that the ease of doing multiple drafts, even if each one is changed by only a few sentences or a couple of added paragraphs, has helped to make the general quality of writing better.
When we write, we are in the process of creating an artifact, something crafted and chiseled, something that, if published as a book on acid-free paper, will outlast us by a long time. Our thoughts and words become objects for people to hold and handle, admire, ridicule, and throw across the room. There's nothing worse than being stuck forever with something that, if you'd only looked a bit more carefully, could have been fixed.