Revise! Rewrite! Revise!

A few months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, My students need to publish.  The belief that our words will make it into print is often what makes us do the work needed to take our writing from good to very goodIn my last post, I wrote about the competing identities the successful writer* embodies: the visionary and the toiler.  But the truth is if the visionary is ever going to have the chance to share her work with her audience,  it’s the toiler who’s going to make it happen.

For the last five years, I’ve been teaching a course called Writing the Memoir for the University of Washington’s Extension Program.  During this nine-month class, I see a great improvement among my students, some of whom have left the class to go onto publish personal essays in places like the Yoga Journal, Memoir magazine, and the New York Times.  One of my students, Abigail Carter, has now had her book The Alchemy of Loss printed in four countries. Another former student, Tim Elhajj, has a book contract for his first memoir, Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption. For whatever reason, these students have found the right mix of vision and motivation to do the toiling needed to bring their work into print.  But I have many talented students who float in a purgatory of slow improvement after the class. They write, maybe check in with a writing group periodically, and maybe stop writing for a while, come back to it, often dissatisfied with a progress they find too slow.

And that might just be fine for some.  We write for different reasons. Sometimes we’re not ready to publish. Sometimes we’re content to be working on improving our skills and sharing our work with a small group of people.  But sometimes this becomes a stuck place, a purgatory where our improvement is incremental and our enthusiasm for writing fizzles.  Some curmudgeons might say: super, that weeds out the people never meant to be writers. Whatever that means, as if there’s a divine list in heaven of the chosen.

And it was those students I was thinking of when I woke up in the night thinking they need to publish.  My first vision was something like a mimeographed newsletter circa 1978 replete with staples and smudgy pages. But then I thought, no it has to be bigger, more inspiring. And hey, it’s a new day for us people: we have publishing options. And that’s when I got the idea for the anthology We Came to Say: A Collection of Memoir, which will be published by Third Place Press next month.

So the due date for submissions for We Came to Say was a few days ago, and I’ve been reading through the 26 pieces that will make the collection, and I’m fairly amazed at what people can do when they’re inspired. Over the last two months, many of these writers have been rewriting and revising these pieces with tireless dedication. The stories were always amazing–a sister coming to terms with her brother’s life sentence for murder, a mother whose son has died of an overdose, a young woman who comes into her own working as a goatherd on a French farm, and many more.  But now, the writing is supporting the stories.  They’ve burned away the extra words, the confusion, and the fog has lifted.

Sometimes all the toiler needs is a reason to toil.

I’ll be writing more about my adventure in self-publishing and We Came to Say’s progress into print and beyond during March and April.  If you have any questions about this process, feel free to ask in a comment.  I’m a beginner to the process myself but I’m happy to share what I have learned so far.

*Theo’s definition of successful writer: A writer writing her best work and reaching her audience with that work.

About Theo Pauline Nestor

Author of Writing Is My Drink (Simon & Schuster) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. Learn more about my courses, editing, and coaching at
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10 Responses to Revise! Rewrite! Revise!

  1. Natalie says:

    “Sometimes all the toiler needs is a reason to toil.”
    I found this to be so true for myself. I also think our successes, small or large as they are, snowball. Once you set a deadline for yourself and submit something somewhere, it becomes easier to do so again, and then again. Once we have a published piece to our names, the desire to get another — and the motivation we need to make that happen — is stronger.

  2. Theo Nestor says:

    I totally agree, Natalie. Those early bylines create a hunger for more and a chance to see publication as a possibility–a repeatable possibility.

    Readers: Check out Natalie’s gorgeous 26-Minute Memoir. It was the first 26-Minute Memoir I posted back in November 2009:

  3. Laura Hebert says:

    Back and forth, should I make my piece funnier? Should I quit trying to be funny and only talk about the hard stuff? Should I include more embarrassing moments about myself and others? How much is enough? Is the musing portion too preachy? Am I too obvious in places and not detailed enough in others? Have I shown, not told? Oh, I am sick of this piece! It’s stupid, what am I doing? The comments people have given me are not what I expected – do I really need to re-write that part? – I thought that part was good! Oh boy, here we go again, re-write! (This is just a portion of the thought process I went through in writing/finishing my piece . . . )

    • Theo Nestor says:

      and that’s why it’s the hard work of revision. Just hosting these thoughts is exhausting! Can’t wait to see your piece “Pilates ‘Practice'” in print, Laura.

  4. Sue Wiedenfeld says:

    What ‘s the truth? What is my truth to share, what is other’s, not to share? I revised my piece until I no longer liked it. And then the journey back to- “What was it that I was trying to say, that still holds the truth and the energy for the reason that I wrote it?” . Thank you, Theo for a taste of writing under a “real” publication deadline, for a process that allowed us all to strive for our best work, while holding true to ourselves, and as Natalie says, only strengthens the desire for more published pieces.

    • Theo Nestor says:

      I was so proud of all the We Came to Say writers for making the deadline. No whining. Nothing. Meeting deadlines is basically keeping your word as a writer. Yes, we might take wild risks with our deadlines (clearly I’m talking about myself here), but in the end, if you deliver quality work on time, editors will come to trust and respect you.

  5. Amber Wong says:

    I loved hearing what you said about revisions – that you aren’t compelled to make all the revisions that people suggest – because in the process of going the extra mile, I learned something valuable. In my piece, I wanted to quote some song lyrics. Not knowing how difficult it would be to get permission, a couple of readers asked, “Can’t you just refer to the song? Everyone knows the lyrics.” I checked in with a couple of friends who said, “Sure, every woman OUR AGE knows the lyrics, but not everyone.” Based on that, Theo got me the right contact to ask. After a quick e-mail exchange with the licenser, within a week and a half I obtained a lyric reprint license. Now I’m not afraid to do it again! Thanks to you, Theo.

    • Theo Nestor says:

      That was really easy. I wonder if permissions always go so smoothly. You did need the full quote in that story too. I just read your piece. Loved it! How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? Jeez, it is women our age who know those lyrics, isn’t it? Sigh. My demographic is showing.

  6. Wendy Hinman says:

    So well said, Theo. It’s a brilliant idea and a great learning experience for everyone. I can’t wait to read everyone’s pieces. It’s a tough thing to let go of our little babies that we’ve carefully prepared for the outside world. Whenever I’ve submitted to a contest or a magazine, I can comfort myself with the idea that if it’s a total bomb, no one beyond the contest judges or editor will give it more than a moment of thought. Submitting a piece to an anthology like this takes “good enough” to another level. Books seem so much more permanent than magazines, newsletters and blogs. I remember having a total panic attack as I hit send that once my piece was in print, I’d find some hugely stupid typo or horrible wording that wrecks all that hard work. And then I had to remind myself that this is a learning experience.

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