Sarah Berns and Smokejumping on Nieman Storyboard

My client Sarah Berns wrote a great piece—so great that Nieman Storyboard came calling! If you want a behind-the-scenes look at the writing and revision process—the time, effort, and agonizing that goes into getting it right—check it out.

And for those who aren’t already familiar with it, Nieman Storyboard is a terrific resource for writers (and editors) of narrative nonfiction. It highlights new and notable work (like Sarah’s essay); looks back at, and breaks down, classics of the form (I’ve written a couple of pieces for them in this vein); publishes craft tips and interviews with writers; and has a newsletter—so you can get all this delivered to your inbox.

New Class: Revising the Short Essay

To writers in the Chicago area: In September, I'll be teaching "Revising the Short Essay," a new class at the Writer's Studio. Description:

This workshop is for writers of personal, narrative, or literary essays working on pieces of approximately 3,000 words or fewer. Reading fellow students’ work and examples by masters of the form, we will examine the balance of scene, exposition, and rumination. In revision, we will practice structural and line editing, with a focus on beginnings and endings, voice, pacing, transitions, and the art of cutting to length. And we will discuss strategies for publishing your polished work. Students should be prepared to submit a draft to the instructor a week before the first class meeting.

If you've been toiling away at writing essays on your own, this course will be a great opportunity to get feedback and draw inspiration from a group of dedicated writers. You can sign up here.


Thomas Ricks and the ‘Offstage Act of Editing’

This essay from the Atlantic is the sort of piece I often file away, figuring I’ll pull it out for some future class on writing and revision, or share it with an author who needs a bit of encouragement: the right words, at the right time, about a familiar-sounding situation.

Thomas Ricks, a New York Times columnist and best-selling author, describes the distress* that ensued when he submitted his most recent book to his longtime editor, Scott Moyers, who responded with … displeasure.

“Two weeks after I sent him the manuscript, I received a most unhappy e-mail back from him,” Ricks writes. “It was not that he disliked it. It was that he fucking hated it.”

Of course the editor didn’t put it quite so indelicately, but such was the sentiment as Ricks inferred it.

Ricks writes of being devastated, but also confused. Yet rather than recoiling from that confusion, he did what every good writer does—or at least what every good writer who trusts his editor does—and instead went toward it. He read and reread, asked blunt questions of himself and of his book. And then he got his hands dirty:

Scott had persuaded me that my blueprint was off, so I disassembled the whole thing. I stacked my lumber, bricks, window frames, glass, and cement. And then, after a couple more weeks of taking notes on how to do it differently, writing signposts on my new blueprint, I set to reconstruction.

The willingness to deconstruct and reconstruct is key. Ricks doesn’t tear down the whole thing and start from scratch. His strong foundation (all that research and accumulated knowledge) remains. But he recognizes that for the book to fly, and to fly off shelves, it needs a whole other shape and feel—something he could see only after his editor’s strong critique.

Some readers have criticized Ricks’s essay as a straight-up piece of marketing. But as an editor, I must say, I appreciate his candid portrayal of the revision process, as well as his public praise for an editor he dearly respects. He concludes:

Most art has a public face—music is played, paintings are displayed, plays are enacted, movies are filmed and often watched by groups. Books tend to be more private, from one person’s act of writing to another’s act of reading. Most mysterious of all is the hidden middle stage, the offstage act of editing. Yet sometimes it can make all the difference.

*The Atlantic’s subhed claims that “hijinks” ensued after Moyerss first reply, but something closer to “distress or “handwringing” (or “self-flagellation”) would be more like it.

Teaching in May: On Revising Well

To Chicagoland writers: On Wednesday afternoons in May, I'll be teaching a course at the Writer's Studio, all about revision—one of my favorite things! A brief description:

Only through revision do we see what we have written. In this craft workshop for writers of fiction and nonfiction, we will explore techniques for reading closely and heightening the impact of your prose. Exercises and readings on structure, word choice, ambiguity, punctuation, the art of trimming, and other topics will help you refine the tone, clarity, and rhythm of your work.

During class, students will learn by doing, editing individually and collectively. Readings will include tip sheets, before-and-after examples from published authors, and gleefully pedantic essays on usage and other matters. If you'd like to sign up, please visit this link, click "On Revising Well," and register online.

Course Announcement: Editing Your Work

To all the Chicago-area writers: Three weeks from today, I begin teaching a four-week course called Editing Your Work, through the Writer’s Studio at the University of Chicago Graham School. In the class, we will examine strategies by which writers may read their own work with fresh eyes; discuss the different levels of editing; look at “before and after” examples from published writers; and practice applying various techniques of revision to our work.

And now a brief tangent from the Department of Coincidence:

I was going through my course materials from last year and made an amusing discovery. For one session, I had students read a short essay called “The Joys of Trimming” (because oh, how I love trimming!). I hadn’t remembered this, but the essay was written by the novelist Pamela Erens—whose latest book, Eleven Hours, I happened to review for the NYT Book Review earlier this month.

The Erens essay will probably be on the reading list again, so if you check it out now, you’ll be a step ahead. To register for my class, or any other Writer’s Studio courses, please visit this page and click on “search courses.”

Live, From Chicago ...

I'm teaching a class this summer — Editing Your Work — at the Writer's Studio, part of the University of Chicago's Graham School. If you're in Chicago and curious about this or any of the Writer's Studio's other offerings, please come to this open house on Thursday, March 31. I'll be presenting a mini-lecture, and other faculty members and alumni will be lecturing and reading. You can also sign up to participate in an open mic, if you have an excerpt of prose, poetry, or a script/play you'd like to share.

As for my class: a brief description is below. If you're interested in registering, you can do so here.