Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself

At long last, I have completed the revised version of my book introduction. It was hard work in all the ways that you might expect, but also in one way that seems, if not unique to me, at least fairly rare among my writerly acquaintances: I just couldn't make the thing longer.

Sure, I added stuff; I added whole sections, important historical and theoretical framing, and discussions of works I hadn't mentioned before. But as I added, I also subtracted. When I sent the book out in August, the introduction was barely 14 pages (4,600 words, counting notes). I felt it was strong for its length and gave a good sense of the project as a whole, and I knew I'd be expanding it later. But it took tremendous effort to get to where I am now, at 22 pages or 7,300 words--and the limited increase in page count doesn't reflect the amount of new material.

This is a problem I've always had. I'm not one of those people who writes painfully slowly, sentence by sentence, polishing each phrase as she goes; I've learned well how to produce shitty first drafts just to get something on the page. But revising, for me, always involves a lot of cutting. Sometimes there are sections that really do become irrelevant, but I also have a mania for eliminating redundant sentences and tightening sections so they move more quickly; I hate to retread too much old ground, and I don't want to bore my reader.

But as frustrating as losing pages can be, I'll admit that I'd always considered my method beyond reproach. My scholarly prose is tight and well-crafted, stylistically interesting, and obsessively well-organized. Frankly, I felt most writers could learn a thing or three from the way I revised.

However, I live with a writer who writes very differently from me. When I first started reading Cosimo's work, I was continually slashing out repetitions and recombining sentences for him. "You said almost exactly the same thing earlier in this paragraph! They're both well-phrased--but you don't need TWO sentences that do the same work!" He'd patiently explain that it was deliberate: he was highlighting or tweaking a key point, or putting it more pithily, in order to make sure the reader got the importance of a particular claim. (And, you know, he's got an MFA, so maybe he knows something about prose style.)

So it's been dawning on me that not just my writing voice but my whole approach to writing is deeply personal and idiosyncratic. And one of my idiosyncrasies is a visceral, even irrational hatred of repetition. When I was younger, being asked to repeat myself by someone who hadn't gotten what I'd said the first time--or who had let his attention wander for a minute--would make me so suddenly angry, and so suddenly sad, that I often had to fight back tears. It felt like I'd been slapped: whoever I'd been talking to hadn't been paying attention to me. I wasn't worth paying attention to.

And then Horace posted this link on Facebook, and under my own Myers-Briggs type I found my "efficiency" listed as a potential writerly pitfall:
[You] tend to be good at weeding out information that isn't pertinent to the project. Be sure to keep audience needs in mind, however. Concise is good; terse is not.
I'm a true believer in the MBTI--at least as a tool for understanding how people process information, make decisions, and solve problems--but it's not something I'd ever thought to apply to my writing. And this jibes uncomfortably well with what I'd been beginning to wonder myself.

So fine. I'll try it. I'll try to be a little less tight-fisted with my prose and a little more expansive with my ideas. I'll try not to assume that every reader can grasp the full extent of my brilliance in a single sentence. It goes against my nature. But then, we INTJs are a deeply misunderstood people.


squadratomagico said...

I'm also an INTJ, but I write much more like Cosimo. I am of the philosophy that if you want to make a complicated point, sometimes you need to slow things down for the reader, so s/he can process it. So, like him, I add in sentences that I know I don't actually *need* -- but it's a question of the speed or rhythm that I feel is appropriate for a given paragraph.

Maybe it's that I'm borderline INFJ: my proportions show me as only 51% T, 49% F. Maybe that pushes me over into wordier-writing territory?

Though I will say that I consider myself a very good and, yes, artful writer. And others agree: a surprisingly large proportion of my book reviews take the time to praise my style and clarity. I've always been proud of that.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

That's so funny - my writing personality totally doesn't match my non-writing personality! I'm ISTJ, and have been EVERY SINGLE TIME I've taken the Myers-Briggs. (I could maybe possibly drift from S to N, maybe, if I tried really hard. And maybe from T to F, though that's less likely. But I'm about as I and as J as you can get.) Apparently, ISTJ writers work everything out in their heads ahead of time, write from start to finish, and resist revising. But I NEVER write like that. I figure out what I want to say by writing stuff on the page, and then I have to totally reorganize/augment/cut. I revise *extensively*, and often prefer it to writing from scratch.

So, funny! I know others have found the typology helpful/accurate, but totally not in this case.

Withywindle said...

I confess to using my thesaurus function so as to make a similar point with a different word. Also, my single-minded determination to get rid of repetition is undermined by mind-blinks; on the eighth draft--in proofs--I suddenly realize I've used the same word five times in one paragraph. Oh, dear.

Renaissance Girl said...

I don't know what my MB initials are, but they signify "intense and high-strung." In life and on the page.

I don't know that I have ever heard that Cosimo has an MFA. Have I heard that? If I have, it's one of the many, many bits of information that have fallen right out of my brain.

Flavia said...

NK (and Squadrato): yeah, I actually don't think the whole of it describes my writing process that well, just as I think that most of the descriptions of INTJs as a whole focus much too much on the sciency! cold! orderly! rational! part to the exclusion of the "intuitive" part. (I think the four sets of binaries are much more useful, as ways of thinking about a person's habits, tendencies, and strategies, than the 16 composite types.)

But it's really helpful to me to think about my writing as related to those tendencies and strategies. My writing is all about blindly groping my way forward, on something like vague instinct; there's never a plan or structure. But my revising is all about imposing that structure.

And RG: I don't know if you had heard it, but it's true--in fiction. Believe the wheres & whens are on his faculty bio.

undine said...

Your post and the links were both helpful for this INTP--thanks.