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  • Katie Cortese

horsemanship: little-known revision advice from well-known writers

Last year, The Atlantic Monthly ran Emily Temple’s excellent compilation of quotes by famous writers on the art of revision. There are many gems in her list, among them this famous quip from a 1985 issue of Newsweek by none other than Elmore Leonard: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

At Iron Horse, we hope you’re deep into revisions for our current submissions call (The Bedroom Issue: Gates open until September 19th). To help you along with your drafts, we dug up some tidbits of advice on rewriting by ten renowned poets and writers who make it look easy. Enjoy, be inspired, and happy revising!


“…my poem that is called 'Jimmy Hoffa's Odyssey' was inspired by a joke that Johnny Carson told, which is, 'Who did they find under Tammy Faye Bakker's make-up?' and the answer was 'Jimmy Hoffa.' And that's how I got the idea to write. I said, 'Hey! I wanna write a poem about Jimmy Hoffa!' [Laughs.] It just proves how you can be inspired by almost anything. Then I started it, and it wasn't working. It just reached a certain point. Well, I always read biographies, for poems that are based on historical figures. So I read this biography, and I didn't even start 'til I read that he often spoke of himself in the third person—as in 'Hoffa don't have no machine.' That's a quote. I was like, 'That's it!' So that was another key into the poem. First I was inspired to write it, then I read the biography, then I had to get in character. And that was how I got in character. But at a certain point I hit a wall, and there are a lot of revisions of that. I re-worked it and re-worked it. And finally, one time I was working on it, I got the idea that Hoffa had been abducted by an alien. From then on, it was smooth sailing, pretty much.” —Standards


“…nothing calls for the paper shredder like a story that the writer clearly hasn’t sat on. A story that hasn’t been rewritten, or rewritten enough. So many writers that I encounter send their work in so soon. It shows, it really does.” —The Daily Beast


“At this stage I do most of my revisions by myself until I reach a point where I either need to give it lots of time, because time is a great reviser too you know, just months of putting it aside, or I will show it. A lot of times I’ll show it to my husband who is a novelist. As a prose writer he has a totally different take on things, so he comes at it in a different way. I yearn for those old days […] from graduate school where you go into a workshop and people would give you all these ideas…” —Big Think


“There are different kinds of sweat and tears—the hours spent on the particular poem and the hours spent in the reading and writing and thinking involved in learning the craft. Often long hours and days and weeks of work on a poem that never works out or comes to life precedes a poem that seems to come almost fully formed.” —How a Poem Happens


“I love that part; that’s the best part, revision. I do it even after the books are bound! Thinking about it before you write it is delicious. Writing it all out for the first time is painful because so much of the writing isn’t very good. I didn’t know in the beginning that I could go back and make it better; so I minded very much writing badly. But now I don’t mind at all because there’s that wonderful time in the future when I will make it better, when I can see better what I should have said and how to change it. I love that part!” —Conversations with Toni Morrison


“The story “Carried Away” was included in Best American Short Stories 1991. I read it again in the anthology, because I wanted to see what it was like and I found a paragraph that I thought was really soggy. It was a very important little paragraph, maybe two sentences. I just took a pen and rewrote it up in the margin of the anthology so that I’d have it there to refer to when I published the story in book form. I’ve often made revisions at that stage that turned out to be mistakes because I wasn’t really in the rhythm of the story anymore. I see a little bit of writing that doesn’t seem to be doing as much work as it should be doing, and right at the end I will sort of rev it up. But when I finally read the story again it seems a bit obtrusive. So I’m not too sure about this sort of thing. The answer may be that one should stop this behavior. There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.” —The Paris Review


“I wrote three or four chapters of The End of the World part before I decided that I needed something more, something totally different. So, I put it alongside a completely different story. I knew there would be some conclusion and that the two stories could come together, but I can’t say I knew why. But I thought that they would get on well with each other. You compose music and write lyrics. You know that the most important means for you to create is your subconscious. Everything important comes from your subconscious. If you plan everything you’d be kidding your subconscious. So I don’t plan anything. I cannot explain why, but I knew this was the right way to approach the story.” —Bomb


“The mistakes I tend to make in my first draft are too many adjectives. When I type it up and look at it, I try to take out half the adjectives and a third of the self-pity. I’m joking, but I’m also not joking. There’s a certain amount of moral revision, where I can see things like self-pity, or any kind of lying, including the lying of idealizing.” —Concord Monitor


“My editing process tends toward growing the poem and letting it reveal itself, to not, again, know too soon where the poem is going or what it’s about. I often have a lot of non-narrative fragments, suspended images and phrases on a page and they grow. It’s kind of a big mess, but eventually I start to sift them down and start to go through and think about how one may connect to another. A lot of it is very instinctive. I want to feel that on the one hand there is a kind of spontaneity and excitement of discovery, but I also want to feel that there is a kind of underlying rigor, that the images or sequencing isn’t arbitrary, that each word needs to be where it is and that each line and image needs to be where it is. There’s an underlying rigor that is making things happen in their particular way.” —Lunch Ticket


“There were not any courses given in so-​called creative writing when I was in college, which is probably just as well. I think you have to learn for yourself. You could be helped, certainly. I could have been spared a lot of mistakes. But I think you have to learn from your own mistakes.” —Virginia Quarterly Review

--Katie Cortese, Assistant Editor


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