Revision, like Sandpaper

sandingEver do any woodworking? Yeah, me neither.

Actually, I’ve done a little. One of the things I liked most was sanding. I remember my father having lots of different sandpaper, each with progressively finer grit. 180, 220, etc. The higher the number, the finer the grit.

I can remember entering a contest where I had to make a little wooden car that would race other cars down a track. The track was simple: basically just a hill that leveled out into a long straightaway. Your car had to be aerodynamic enough to speed down the hill and beat the other cars to the finish line.

My dad helped with me with the project. He liked to build those sorts of things. Before we painted it, we had to sand it, to make sure it was as smooth and rounded as possible. Sleek and fast.

NOT my car
NOT my car

I remember using that sandpaper, starting with a lower number until it was as smooth as I could make it with that grit, then graduating to a finer paper, sanding more and more, each time increasing the grit and making that car smoother and smoother still.

It’s a lot like revision.

Revision is complicated. It has lots of stages. Sometimes, very early, you’re not sanding at all. You’re still building. You’re taking the back of the car and putting it in front, changing the wheels out, re-thinking your whole approach.

But, hopefully eventually, you’re sanding.

The other day I was reading the Revising chapter in The One-Hour MFA by Michael Kimball, which is a great little craft book that zeroes on the essence of certain aspects of writing. He includes a bunch of quotes from various writers on how they approach revision. I really liked a couple of them:

“If I reach a point where I am glazing over, or replacing, one day, a comma I omitted the day before, then I let the story go, for better or worse, and move on.” – Noy Holland

“A work is finished when we can no longer improve it, though we know it to be inadequate and incomplete. We are so overtaxed by it that we no longer have the power to add a single comma, however indispensable. Whatever determines the degree to which a work is done is not a requirement of art or of truth, it is exhaustion and, even more, disgust.” – Emil Cioran

I think both of these quotes are saying a similar thing – you revise and revise until you’ve used the finest grit sandpaper you possess, until the work is as smooth as you are capable of making it, until you’re almost disgusted by it.

Then you let it go.

Finish LineAnd it doesn’t mean it can’t get any smoother. It can always be smoother. You might still run your hand over it and get a sliver. Such is the nature of art. It can always be better.

But learning “smooth enough” is as big part of understanding revision and being able to do the thing some writers never achieve. FINISHING – you have to finish.

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