Here is a short passage a student of mine wrote recently as an exercise in description. It is the first draft of her composition, which means it is an invitation to her own mind to assemble some first thoughts around an idea, welcoming them all far and wide to come as they are and take a seat. Not all of these first thoughts arrive dressed for the occasion, so finding the right look for each of them will be the work of subsequent revisions:
Tiny diamonds dance on the water, small waves lap on the water’s edge, lightly salted air fills my lungs while shore birds dance around the water’s edge. Bright blue sky crowded by cotton ball-like clouds see their reflection into the deep sea. While watching the diamonds there are hungry pelicans crashing into the sea with water stretched pouches filled with small fish only to satisfy the slightly hungry bird.
It is important (some of my students say it is freeing) to remember the distinction between a draft and the revisions that transform that first draft into a final one. To create is to invite, and to invite is to accept, to welcome, to say yes, and yes again. Anything goes, within reason, and within reason means here anything that can show itself related to the subject at hand. All that generosity, though, will fill the house fast, and so the observation is often made that the work of revising is subtractive: fewer words and sharper statements as we find a place at the table for all who have arrived.
That said, we live, though, in a world of opposites, and so all that welcoming yes we give to our thoughts will have to be balanced from time to time with a judicious no. This is being critical in the good sense, not captious and faultfinding, but keen and acute and precise. We are after just the right word or phrase to say what we see, and we start with the assumption that our welcoming first draft has produced too much, not too little. This is why revising is subtracting—we can often say with fewer words much more than we realize.
And so should our writer say that tiny diamonds dance, or just diamonds dance? It is true that diamonds come large and small, but most of us think first of diamonds as tiny objects, and so nothing is gained by the obvious description; save the adjective tiny and take advantage of the resulting alliteration and cadence: diamonds dance. So too with the adjective small before the noun waves, because large waves don’t lap. Once again we revised out the obvious. And so, as well, with the adverb lightly before the adjective salted. The guest that brought the phrase lightly salted air must have had dinner on his mind, but the scene is natural, not culinary, and so salty air is a finer fit.
One technique in revising, then, is to watch for the tendency to over-qualify our perceptions, noun with adjective or adjective with adverb. This same technique applies also to larger syntactical elements, where we might think there is the need for a conjunction to direct the logic, but where there is really no such need at all. Thus the clause while shore birds dance might better complement the simple clarity of our earlier revisions by omitting the subordinating conjunction and letting the assertion stand brightly on its own: shore birds dance around the water’s edge. Or to shorten the stride of the seven words, we could replace the two-syllabled around with the monosyllable at and delete the article, thereby producing a more pointed delivery: shore birds dance at water’s edge. Or did the deletion of the definite article go too far? Adjudicating that question is the work that produces the literary sensitivity behind good writing.
And so it goes through the length of our first drafts. Our critical turn of mind balances with its questioning the abundance that our welcoming mind first brought home. A questioning turn of mind, but not a prosecutorial one, because we are trying to get our straying thoughts back onto the royal road, not condemn them for walking in the entirely wrong direction. Or perhaps it is enough to say (so that I don’t mix the metaphor I began with), revising is getting the first thoughts that arrive dressed for the party.