“Murder your darlings”, and the importance of rewriting

This Friday I got a fat manilla envelope from IMLS. We had submitted a proposal for the IMLS’ National Leadership Grant program, and hadn’t made the cut. Disappointing, but not unexpected.  Competition was fierce this year, and we’d never applied before, so there was no institutional knowledge base to draw on.  I am super-excited that Rob Stein and Co. at IMA got some serious funding for TAP and TourML.

The envelope contained the reviewers’ comments on the proposal along with the “Dear John” letter explaining IMLS’s budget and criteria for rating proposals.  I didn’t have much time, but I skimmed them, trying to glean what I could. Going through anonymous comments on your work can be painful, especially when it’s a rejected piece, but it’s a great learning experience. It made me realize I needed to go back and reread the proposal before I went through the reviewers comments more thoroughly.

What happened?
This proposal was for a project I’ve been working on, in fits and starts, since January 2006. It’s been fleshed out several times, rejiggered a few times, and tweaked to appeal to different audiences enough times that I have trouble sometimes remembering which version of the project I’m currently in. As I skimmed the proposal before leaving work, it became clear to me that next time I was going to have to start from scratch and rewrite the entire thing.Why? I didn’t sketch enough for one. It also suffered form a bad case of cut and paste syndrome, combined with loving my darlings too much for my own good.

Sketching
Months ago I wrote a post on the importance of sketching, rapidly producing coarse-grained representations of your thinking.  If you’re a designer, you draw sketches, if you’re a writer, you write what I call “sketches” for lack of a better term. The point is that you make them, you make them right then in response to the situation that created the need for a sketch, and that the expectation is that the sketch is just a first approximation of something much more detailed, later. It’s hard for me to do, and I have to keep at myself to keep doing it, and not get hung up on making it “better” than it needs to be. Looking at my proposal, I think it suffered from not being sketched first. I took an existing document and reworked it, and then reworked it again, and again, but I never put it aside, sketched a fresh new proposal out and filled it back in with detail from older versions.

Kate Haley-Goldman talked about her methods for searching for inspiration in my series of posts on cognitive load. One of the things she said that I immediately recognized as truth was that taking ideas and rewriting them yourself is a way of making them your own, of internalizing something so you can find out what you can do with it. I think with this proposal, I hadn’t done enough rewriting, and instead monkeyed around with what was already there. This is ironic, given that one of my few rules of label writing is,

“The more you monkey with it, the more it sucks.”

The tyranny of Word
The trouble is that word processing makes it a lot easier to monkey, and rewriting is still every bit as hard as ever.  The tyranny of Word and cut and paste mean you have to be a lot more vigilant about flow and tone. Whole chunks of documents can move around!  If you’re doing something like writing a proposal for one funder and then writing another proposal on the same topic for another funder, the temptation to cut and paste is overwhelming. For me, I think it has a lot to do with preferring to work with text I think is “good enough” rather than rough, first draft-y text. It’s a syndrome Anne Lamott covered beautifully in “Bird by Bird”. She has a whole chapter called “Shitty First Drafts” that almost made me cry with laughter the first time I read it. She writes so eloquently about the feelings of unworthiness, the self-doubt and loathing that plague me when I read first drafts of my own writing.  It might be time to reread that book again.

Murder your darlings
Another problem I think the proposal suffered from was that it wasn’t tightly enough focused on what the funder wanted because I was too attached to ideas and chunks of writing that were important to me. As Orwell would have said, I got too attached to my own ego to make the document adequately serve the purpose it was intended for. Almost a century ago, Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch wrote  in “On The Art of Writing”,  “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” Faulkner later shortened this to “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”  What they mean is not that you must not write things you like or love, but that you must be extra suspicious of them and be willing to expunge them when they don’t serve the purpose of the text.  This is why God created editors and first readers.  When you love a piece of writing, it’s hard to be critical of it. Grant proposals, with their straightjacket page limits and rigid format, are no place for deathless prose for the sake of deathless prose. They are place where your writing should be clear as glass, so that the ideas are immediately apparent by the reviewers who will decide its fate.

Live and learn, right?

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7 responses to ““Murder your darlings”, and the importance of rewriting

  1. Equally true when writing proposals for RFPs from great institutions like yours. Sometime boiler plate gets so boring no one can read it! Thanks, Ed.

  2. Interesting you pick up on Word as a contributor to these difficulties. That’s almost definitely the case as Word has always operated in a single document paradigm which is why cut and paste is so tempting but problematic. I’d really recommend some of the newer tools like Scrivener which are built for holding ‘sketches’ attached to ‘projects’.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Seb! I’ve long looked at other writing tools, but resisted moving off of the Museum’s officially supported apps. Maybe it’s time to take the plunge…

  3. Ed- as a fellow ‘didn’t make the cut’ NLG proposer, I empathize. And I deeply appreciate your insight. I’m waiting for my fat manilla envelope, but I look to you as a guide for how to interpret constuctive criticism the right way! Thanks!

    • My condolences, Kate. It was a tough round and I don’t envy the reviewers trying to spread the IMLS largesse around.

      I’m glad you found something in the post. If you’d seen me glaring at my mailbox when I spied the envelope from IMLS, you would’ve heard some none-too-constructive interpretations!

  4. Pingback: How to master the rewrite of a research paper or term paper | Citations

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