David James Poissant's craft talk, “Find, Replace: Revising Prose Style in a Microsoft Word World,” was originally published in The Southeast Review's October 2017 Writer’s Regimen.
Let me get one thing out of the way, right away: I love to teach. I’m not one of those writers who teaches merely to support my writing habit. I love both teaching and writing. Even if I didn’t need the money, I’d keep teaching. I consider such work an honor, a privilege, and a way of paying back those who taught me. It’s my life’s work, and, if, at the end of my life, I’m remembered more for my teaching than my writing, I’ll be okay with that.
That said, if there is one aspect of teaching that gives me the howling fantods, it’s teaching revision. Beginning writers seldom know what real revision is. I know this because, when I was a young MFAer at the University of Arizona, I did not know what revision was. I figured it out after one generous and tireless professor, Jason Brown, made me revise the same story every week for about ten weeks. By the end of the process, I was almost in tears. I was sick of the story. Which, I learned, is exactly what revision is: Writing and rewriting and interrogating every phrase until you know every word of a piece by heart and never want to read the piece again. As a result of my hard work, and Jason’s patience, I wound up with my first strong short story. Jason had discouraged me from settling for good enough. Because, even once the story was firing on all cylinders structurally, there was much to be done at the sentence level.
And that’s where the work of many beginning fiction and nonfiction writers falls short: at the sentence level. Many a fine story or essay need only be excavated from its pile of pronouns and participles in order to succeed. So, how do you get there? How do you move from mostly good prose to writing that sings at the sentence level?
Well, you look out for words like well. You look out for vague pronouns. You look out for preposition pileups. There are any number of tics that obscure your meaning, clutter your prose, and make your sentences un-fun to read. For a great list of hiccups to watch out for, check out “Small Craft Warnings” in John Dufresne’s The Lie that Tells a Truth, as well as Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft (pretty much the whole book). As Le Guin puts it, addressing any writer who doesn’t care about sentences or who claims to have “outgrown” the “aural sense of what they’re reading or writing”: “That’s a dead loss. An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s quite easy to cultivate, to learn or reawaken.”
It is quite easy. Take, for example, the word it. Often, reading a student’s story, I find that the student makes use of the word it several hundred times. (I’m not exaggerating.) There is nothing de facto verboten about the pronoun, but its overuse tends to render sentences vague or, worse, confusing. If I notice that it is a particular student’s albatross, I’ll encourage the student to watch out for the pronoun in their next story. Often, though, the next story arrives it-laden. “What happened?” I’ll ask. “Oh,” the student will say. “I forgot.”
This should upset me, and, sometimes, it does. Mostly, though, I sympathize. I get it. Revising, there are so many balls to juggle. You want to make sure that a piece is structurally sound with a beginning, a middle, and an end. You want to account for pacing. You have to be sure each scene begins and ends where it should. You must ensure that your dialogue is strong, that your characters are developed, and that every character choice is motivated and makes sense. You must balance summary with scene, showing with telling, and concrete setting with breathtaking abstraction. You have to consider interiority versus dialogue versus action. You’ve got to decide between metaphor and simile. You have to raise some buildings and raze others. You must develop each character’s voice. And, maybe most of all, you’ve got to be sure that your ending kicks ass.
Given all of that, who has time to address the nuances of prose style? It’s an awful lot to account for in a story or essay of any length. No surprise, then, that sentence-level choices tend to take a backseat to all of the above. Except that, when your sentences fail you, your reader can’t see the forest for the trees. Gentle writer, no matter how good your story or essay, your gentle reader will not appreciate all of the work you’ve done if all they see is a mountain of its.
But, here’s the good news. Given our brave new Microsoft Word world, catching your own hiccups and tics is easier than ever. (No, Microsoft is not paying me for this, though maybe they should?) Say you tend to fall back on the pronoun it. Catching your usage is as easy as accessing Word’s Find and Replace feature. Mouse over to Find. Type in it. Now, examine the manuscript and interrogate every it in it. You’ll have to keep some. Maybe you’ll choose to keep plenty. Taste, after all, has a lot to do with this process, and one writer’s faux pas is another writer’s foie gras. But, most writers will agree that, most of the time, most its have to go.
So, why Word (or any comparable find feature in any word processing program)? Because, once you’ve read a piece for the seventy-ninth time, human error kicks in. You miss things. You read over mistakes. You see what you want to see rather than what’s on the page. With Find and Replace, rather than skimming the whole document, worried you’ll miss something, you’ll have every occurrence highlighted for you. In the end, revising at the sentence level becomes, in part, as simple as making a list of your indiscretions and considering each as you polish your later drafts.
Trust me, I’m not just the president of the Find & Replace fan club; I’m also a member. One of my own tics (and there are many) is an overreliance on present participles. For example, I’ll be writing in present tense. I’ll drop in a present participle. Then, I’ll pair the participle with an auxiliary verb, so that I end up with a sentence like this:
Sara is walking to school.
Sure, the sentence is functional, but so is this:
Sara walks to school.
The second sentence is functional and economical.
As far as I’m concerned, in most cases, the second sentence is the better sentence. So, before I put anything into the world, I search my document for –ing. Then, it’s inquisition time for every participle and gerund I find. Each begs. Some stay. Most are excommunicated.
Again, you’ll have to devise your own list of common transgressions. And, even given your list, and the ease of the Word search, you’ll have some tough choices ahead. After all, rules are made to be broken. John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, for example, begins: “Boys are playing basketball…” That opening has never bothered me. I can’t in good conscious make the argument that the novel would begin more powerfully with “Boys play basketball.” But, had Updike followed that first sentence with another dozen participle phrases, I’d certainly lose patience.
Probably you’re thinking this craft talk deserves an award for the most glaringly obvious “duh” talk ever delivered. But, you’d be surprised how many students and beginning writers hear this advice and don’t follow through. And, by many, I mean most. No matter how often I beg, rant, and plead, new writers seldom take the time to make their lists and revise their work. Month after month, I see stories from undergrads and MFAers alike that recycle easily-caught typos, grammatical errors, and prose style snafus. And, before you blame my particular institution of higher learning, I assure you that friends who teach at Harvard and Iowa and Michigan all confirmed that they see the same thing.
When it comes to teaching, I have two mottos. The first, directed at myself, borrows from the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. The second, delivered to my students, is: There are no dumb questions, but there are questions I’ve already answered on the syllabus. Lately, though, I’ve considered a third motto, both for my students and for myself: There are no dumb mistakes, but there are mistakes you’ve made before. In writing, as in life, it’s imperative that we learn from our mistakes, not repeat them. It’s never been easier, in revision, to catch our mistakes. With Word, it’s so easy, it feels like cheating. So, cheat. I beg you. Use the shortcut. Make your list. Implement your search. Clean up your clunky sentences.
Give yourself permission to make mistakes, but make new ones every time. Given the technology at our fingertips, there’s no good reason to make the same mistakes again and again.
David James Poissant’s stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, One Story, Playboy, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in the New Stories from the South and Best New American Voices anthologies. His writing has been awarded the Matt Clark Prize, the George Garrett Fiction Award, the RopeWalk Fiction Chapbook Prize, the GLCA New Writers Award, and the Alice White Reeves Memorial Award from the National Society of Arts & Letters, as well as awards from The Chicago Tribune and The Atlantic Monthly and Playboy magazines. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters. His debut short story collection, The Heaven of Animals, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014. He is currently at work on a novel, which is also forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.