What Not to Write

by Editors

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THE WRITING LIFE

What Not to Write:
Stacy, Clinton, and Working Through Ugly Revision

By Erin Dionne

Most people have a reality-TV guilty pleasure. For some, it’s American Idol. Maybe you’re into Project Runway or Survivor. My favorite? What Not to Wear.

This TLC-created program takes the fashion-challenged and rehabs them via a wardrobe consultation, a $5000 New York City shopping spree, and a hair and makeup makeover. On it, 80s throwbacks are reinvented, outdated moms get sexed up, those who dress inappropriately young or old for their age are set on the right path.

Perhaps I have writing on the brain, but I was happily enjoying a mini-marathon of episodes last weekend when it dawned on me: What Not to Wear is exactly like experiencing a good critique of a piece of writing. At first we may think our story is fine the way it is. We’re comfortable with the characters we create, with the style and pacing of the story and with the themes. Never mind that some of the characters-like tapered pants, Clinton and Stacy’s big no-no-don’t fit quite right, or some of the themes or language stand out as garishly as the colors on an 80s shirt-we don’t see the flaws. Of course, we think, it needs some tweaking, but it won’t be a big deal … just a few switches here and there and it’ll be in great shape.

Then come the 360-degree mirror and the secret footage.

Try on everything you own in an environment where you can’t hide from the truth. Or, watch that tape of you wearing your worst and see yourself the way others see you. Then give over all the clothing you own to be destroyed. Frightening for most of us. Same goes with writing. Handing over our work to an editor or critique partner requires a leap of faith. But having someone point out the piece’s flaws-showing them in a bright light-helps us regard our work with an objective eye. And, in most cases, like the people on the show, what we see ain’t pretty. That’s when the real work begins.

Stacy and Clinton offer each participant on What Not to Wear a set of shopping rules to follow and give them suggestions to help them figure out what articles of clothing are most flattering for their shape. Many balk. “Too much color,” one says, wrinkling her nose. “I’d never wear floral,” sniffs another. But, as Stacy and Clinton point out, it’s okay not to like a particular element. The idea is to take the overall suggestion (such as wearing a fitted jacket instead of a slumpy sweatshirt) and see the difference it can make.

Editors and critique partners offer writers suggestions for the same reasons. They want our work to be in the best shape it can be; to reach its potential. But there’s a lot of resistance to making changes. Many writers feel that their work “loses something” when it’s tinkered with. Others take offense at the slightest suggestion that their work isn’t perfect. After teaching writing workshops and offering critiques for nearly a decade, I’ve seen a lot of “revision resistance.” And I’ve had my several of my own dig-my-feet-in moments. But resistance doesn’t lead to improvement.

Once the people on What Not to Wear accept the Rules and start shopping smart, they see major changes in the mirror. It’s never without a struggle, though-leaving old habits and comforts behind is difficult (even if, by God, they are parachute pants and puff-painted schlumpy sweatshirts). Participants are forced to confront issues ranging from body image to self-esteem problems, shedding their former self-image and embracing a new reflection. It’s the same process of acceptance as we work through revision suggestions. If you can overcome the initial defensive push-back and try new ideas, opening your mind to ways that the writing could improve, the better the piece becomes.

On What Not to Wear, when the shopping is finished Nick and Carmindy show up to do hair and makeup. That is when magic happens: viewers see the person who started the show dressed like Madonna in her “Holiday” video is truly beautiful–there was just too much distraction to see her clearly. And yep, it happens in that story: a few polishing edits bring out the facets on the gem we’ve created working through those major revision suggestions. Of course, the whole writing process would be a lot easier if there was a $5000 shopping spree attached to a critique session; perhaps that’s fodder for a new TLC show –– What Not to Write.

I’ll be the first one to sign up.

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Erin Dionne, co-editor of Bread and Circus, is the author of the forthcoming novel Beauty Binge from Dial Books for Young Readers. Available in spring 2009.

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