Hide and Seek On Paper

August 21, 2015

The more I write, the more I come to know the truth of the old aphorism that writing is rewriting. With every new work, I’m learning to be at greater peace with my rough drafts and just let them splatter onto the page, because most of the real fun for me comes in the progressive stages of revision.

Lately I’ve been putting one of my favorite revision techniques to a lot of use: unpacking details. As I read my draft I ask myself, What’s hiding in this paragraph? This line? This word? I’ve surprised myself with what I’ve been able to pull out. Here are some examples from my current project, a literary nonfiction piece about Scout camp.

First, the rough version:

Most of the guys are at the bottom of the hill, where Kidney Lake, swollen with spring runoff, has flooded out the white-sand beach for which we camped here in the first place.

And the revision:

Most of the Boy Scouts are at the shore of Kidney Lake, lashing together a crude raft because this year’s spring runoff has flooded out the beach where we had planned to play testosterone-charged Frisbee.

While reading the rough version of this sentence, I found Boy Scouts hiding in the word guys. I also discovered some space in the bottom of the hill to include more concrete imagery and give the reader a better idea of just what those Boy Scouts are doing.

The next example transforms one paragraph into two:

I return to my chair by the fire and lose track of time. When James calls everyone back to the lake, Matthew is standing bare-chested and ankle-deep in the water with the kind of solemn expression reserved for ceremonial rites of passage.

I return to my chair by the fire and become immersed in the twisted shapes that pulse throughout the smoldering wood. A lone ant emerges from a smoking hole and skitters purposefully to the tip of the log. Perched on the edge of its ruined world, the ant appears to think deeply about the ashen pit below. I lean in; the heat blasts against my forehead as if I’m checking a cake in the oven. But it’s worse for the ant. In the chaos of the blaze, the gregarious insect has no line to fall into. A fuse blows inside that tiny brain, and the ant begins to zigzag toward the opposite end of the log—the one already engulfed in flame.

When James finally calls I realize I’m on my knees, nearly in the fire pit myself. The ant is dead. I brush off my pants and fall into line with the other Scouts. We congregate on the shore of Kidney Lake, where Matthew stands ankle-deep in the water, an alpine breeze brushing his farmer tan with goosebumps.

The length of the revision is the first thing a reader might notice; there was a lot hiding in that first sentence. Now the time between sitting down and going to the lake passes in a more engaging manner; the illusion of losing track of time is more real. The narrator is also more present as a character with stronger sensory details. There’s another single-word package, too, turning bare-chested into an alpine breeze brushing his farmer tan with goosebumps–again, stronger sensory detail.

Neither of these examples have reached their final stage yet. In the next round of editing, I may shorten them; the goal is the strongest possible language in the fewest possible words. But at the very least, this revision has accomplished a lot, turning generic details into concrete images.

Photo of bigfoot with caption

Challenge accepted.
source: weknowmemes.com

Playing hide and seek with a draft is a fun way to go about revising. What other fun approaches do you take to your editing process? Share them in the comments!

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One Response to “Hide and Seek On Paper”

  1. kekifoofa Says:

    Love it. I need to remember I don’t have to be perfect first round. So much to write so many ideas. Finally back to my favorite project I’ve been working on for years. I’m gonna throw it on paper then I’m gonna go back and fix. Can’t wait to get our writing group going.


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