George Saunders, the short story writer, essayist, and novelist, recently published a piece in The Guardian
on what writers really do when they write
. In it, Saunders dispels the myth that artists and authors have a fully formed idea and simply transfer it to the page. “The actual process, in my experience,” he says, “is much more mysterious.”
The process of writing is certainly mysterious…and unpredictable. When we start crafting a piece, our idea may be the smallest of seedlings; we don’t know what will grow from that first sentence. But one thing is certain—a draft requires time and care to turn from roughed-out thoughts to powerful writing. Here’s how Saunders describes it:
When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.
But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.
How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity.
Follow Saunders’ lead, dear writers, and rework a description three times, starting with something simple and moving toward something more complex by adding specificity and detail. Community ambassadors Zirong
show us how it's done!