William Germano Talks about On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts

William Germano

William Germano is professor of English at Cooper Union in New York. He’s also had a long career in publishing and brings some of that experience to his work as a teacher, in seminars and workshops worldwide and in the college classroom. His books include Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books and From Dissertation to Book, both published by the University of Chicago Press, and Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything, coauthored with Kit Nicholls and published by Princeton University Press. He’s also published in film studies and on the history of the eye chart and is working now on a book about operas based on Shakespeare’s plays.

In this interview for Fiction+, he discusses his latest book, On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts, now available from the University of Chicago Press, with Shop Talk editor Russell Harper.

RH: On Revision is addressed primarily to academic writers. But this is Fiction+, so I’ll ask this up front: Do the principles of revision apply equally to all writers, from the scientist reporting on a decline in the biomass of flying insects to the novelist plotting the fictional demise of a wealthy family?

Cover image for On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts, by William GermanoWG: I’m grinning at your question, Russell, because I’m sure academic writers would be better at academic writing if they spent a little more time reading trade science and well-paced mysteries and analyzing what’s happening on the page. I like to think that On Revision has something to say to anyone who’s writing. Listen, listen, listen to the words you put down. A writer is a great pair of ears with adequate typing skills. When you revise you listen harder.

And you look, too. The shapes you put on the page count. The length of paragraphs, sections, chapters, the whole ball of string—when we write we can see beautiful thoughts taking shape, but readers see the shapes first. I’m always harping about paragraphs that go on for more than a page. Why? Open secret: All writers—novelists, journalists working on polar melt, the critic rebuilding our understanding of what “mixed race” means in the twenty-first century—are telling stories.

Storytelling is what writers do, even academic writers. If that sounds old-fashioned, I hope it’s old-fashioned in a productively new way. If you’re a writer, you’re a reviser, too.

RH: That was certainly true of a writer like Balzac. Toward the beginning of your book you reproduce a densely marked-up typeset page from Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet, and toward the end you say this: “Writing is one thing, but rewriting is the real, messy thing. . . . If revision isn’t messy, you’re not doing it right” (p. 171). Maybe writers who work on-screen should be more like copyeditors, who usually track their changes when sharing them with authors. Otherwise, all those revisions are invisible.

A marked-up typeset page from Balzac’s novel Eugénie GrandetWG: True enough. Most of the time we revise as we write—switching, swapping, inserting, deleting. It’s so much of what a writer does that maybe we want to reserve the term “revision” for something we do after we get everything down the first time. Writers more disciplined than I might be able to hold all that in their heads. I can’t. I keep multiple files on a chapter, though I date and number them so I can compare and track developing thoughts.

I want people to feel okay about needing to look at their draft as a draft, then being brave about listening to it and doing everything necessary to make it clearer, sharper. To tell the story that has to be told, only tell it better. To do that, though, every writer needs to struggle with risk and permission—the risk of saying something or making something that others will respond to, and giving oneself permission as a writer to say it.

Looking at one’s earlier drafts should be grounds for encouragement. Find the great phrase, the plot turn, the set of terms that popped off the page! Even if an early draft doesn’t work for you anymore, see if there’s a fragment—of language, of character—that’s worth holding on to. Bring it into the next version. Make it welcome.

RH: And to do this, to find what’s worth keeping as you revise, it sounds like you need to be prepared to step outside yourself—to read your own work, as you say, “with eyes as different from your own as you can manage” (p. 42). Why is this “veil of ignorance” (the legal concept attributed to John Rawls that you discuss in more detail a bit later in your book and return to several times) such a key to successful revision? Is it only a matter of remaining objective, or is there something deeper behind it?

WG: Rawls’s legal concept became useful to me as a means of tricking myself into seeing what I’d drafted. Is there anything tougher than looking at what you’ve written and trying to imagine what someone who is not you is going to make of it? But that’s what every writer—novelist, short story writer, biographer, poet, professor of forensic science—is doing.

RH: Actors also do this, maybe more than writers. Though academic writers sound a lot like actors in your book—for example, when you describe what they do as a process of interpreting data and making it speak: “Give voice to the voiceless. That’s one of the writer’s jobs, especially if the writer is a scholar” (p. 105). Isn’t that also one of the fundamental roles of the novelist, whether it’s James Joyce transcribing Molly Bloom’s innermost thoughts at the end of Ulysses or, more recently, Megha Majumdar giving voice in her novel A Burning to a young woman falsely accused of terrorism?

WG: Yes, very much. Again, this is something writers of fiction know in their bones. Of course, in fiction there are so many ways to give voice. Maybe we could think of the bildungsroman as the emergence of a voice that happens to have people attached to it? I’ve been teaching Ocean Vuong this month, and the format of a letter to one’s mother—a mother who cannot or will not ever read that letter—feels like a metaphor for so much about writing itself.

I mentioned permission and risk a few minutes ago. The reader watches and listens to fictional characters, their risks, the permission they extend or receive, and to the voices that the writer makes for them. If you teach writing—and I like to say that anyone who teaches and is requiring any written work of any kind is de facto a writing teacher—you want your students to know that you get it: that’s it’s scary and exhilarating, but also strangely powerful. All that permission and risk mixed up in the writer and on the page.

RH: Which brings us back to the process. You say more than once that there is no single way to write or revise. But you do provide some useful schematics, including a bullseye that’s designed to help writers zero in on what they’re trying to say—and my new favorite, the Writing W, or a path that resembles the constellation Cassiopeia:

The constellation Cassiopeia

Starting at the upper left of the W—the first star—the writer drafts the opening and then moves down to the second star and writes the conclusion; then it’s over to the middle star, or the body of the text, which leads naturally back to the conclusion (the fourth star) and, finally, back to the beginning (the fifth star). In other words (if I’m reading you correctly), you write the introduction and conclusion first but revise them last, after your ideas have taken shape. Do you find that this approach makes the ending—often so difficult for writers—easier to get right?

WG: The role of the ending is often a big difference between professional academic writers and (a) students and (b) fiction writers. The shape of student writing has more in common with fiction than you might think. And I’m not trying to be funny.

Scholars often produce complex analyses and leave them in juxtaposition. That sort of writing often stops without really producing the satisfying thing we call an ending. Analysis can overwhelm the needs of the reader, even of other specialist readers.

Fiction writers—also dramatists and poets, and essayists of all stripes—know how much is at stake in that last look. Students try to shape what they’re doing but can get stuck. They’re often locked into the logjam of the five-paragraph essay. With the Writing W technique, I wanted to break the ice. Write first and last thoughts, then do everything you thought was the development. Naturally, you’ll need to adjust your ending and—this can be a surprise to students—even the opening.

What might happen with a short story? Or a nonfiction essay? Start with the great opening you have in your head then immediately write a last paragraph. It’s an anti-romantic move, I know. You’re skipping all the torment of working out the in-between stuff. But if it tricks you out of writer’s block, it’s a trick that works. Every fiction student has Camus’s Joseph Grand—the guy in The Plague who wants to write and can’t get beyond his first sentence—hiding inside.

RH: A refrain throughout your book is that writers should never forget the presence of their readers: “It’s not the research and the knowledge, the judicious sifting, the care with which you’ve organized your findings that counts. It’s what your reader takes away” (p. 148). I was impressed, then, to find evidence of this not only in the main pages of your book but in the index, at the very back of the book, the one place where the author—not to mention the reader—is usually invisible. I’m referring to that parenthetical moment at the end of the entry for “reader, readers” where you break the fourth wall: “(but honestly, the reader is on every page of this book, and should be in yours).” Did you add this, Balzac-like, to the page proofs of the finished index—or did it find its way into an earlier draft?

WG: I’m so glad you found that. It just came to me. I love indexes. They’re maps of the world you’ve just made. And since you’ve just made that world, isn’t a map a handy thing? I don’t really regret that there aren’t indexes to novels, but I probably still have falling-apart paperbacks from college in which page numbers to major plot events (“Casaubon, death of”) have been penciled into the blank pages of a great nineteenth-century novel.

RH: Poor Casaubon! All that writing and revising and nothing, finally, to show for it. You end your book on a much more hopeful note when you compare revision to life, an analogy that suggests we can improve on our past selves and that at any given moment—to quote you quoting the writer Nathaniel Mackey—“we’re a draft closer to what we mean when we say humanity in an idealistic sense” (p. 186). Not that we can ever hope to finish this process. Is that why revision is so difficult but also so rewarding?

The rectangular hyperbola x squared minus y squared and its conjugate, having the same asymptotes.WG: I sometimes think that On Revision is a book about life and only secondarily about writing. By that I mean that it’s meant to encourage us—as writers, as teachers, as people—to find the courage in the doubt, the necessary ferocity despite everything against us—to make something. To make it better. Not perfect. Never perfect.

There’s a cliché in business-speak we’ve all heard—the so-called “culture of continuous improvement.” That language has a particular agenda. But there are better, less commercialized ways of thinking about living out our time as best we can. I’ve talked to engineering students about revision and the asymptote, getting closer and closer and never converging. I’m not a mathematician, but it’s a concept that I’ve always loved.

Revision, correction, clarification, hearing who you are, what you have to say. Not just what you can say (I have a basket of apples) but what you must say (I have a basket of apples—for you—and they will change your life). You write not just because you have something to say but because you have something you have to say. Revision is just another stage in getting there. Honestly, it’s the most important stage, too.

RH: And more than worthy of a book. Thank you for sharing On Revision with us at Shop Talk.

WG: Thanks so much for the chance to talk to your readers!

Image credits: Photo of William Germano provided by the author. Marked-up typescript page of Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (1833) from the Morgan Library & Museum, Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts, MA 1036, purchased 1925. Cassiopeia (cropped and rotated for post) by Pithecanthropus4152, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Asymptote drawing by Krishnavedala, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.

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