Category Archives: Revision

Counterintuitive: PS to “Cone of Shame”

Trouble doesn’t overthink things, which is one of the reasons she’s such good company. So she is not puzzling over the whys and the hows, as Human is — she is just delighted to be free of the cone of shame and to have the regimen of medications reduced to just lubricating drops until her next check with the surgeon.


Photo Credit: Eileen Donahoe

The keratectomy has done its magic: within six days of the procedure the ulcer had shrunk to a pinpoint; on day twelve, it was pronounced fully healed. No stain uptake in any tissue. The vet, the assistant, the office manager, other clients in the waiting room — everyone had a huge smile, and there was a little wine with dinner that night.

Human continues to puzzle over how removing a microscopic layer of tissue can promote healing — it’s counterintuitive that a large raw surface should heal faster than a partially healed ulcer. But that’s what happens, in nine out of ten dogs, the surgeon says, and in the tenth, there’s usually some underlying unsuspected condition which has been interfering with the healing.

But of course, it does make sense. It’s a bit like throwing pots. When you work your clay on the wheel, you shape it to bring it closer and closer to your vision — but there are times when you have to let the whole thing collapse and start afresh. Fiddling with it, like debriding the ulcer, is just not working. Go back to the raw clay.

And throwing pots is like writing (isn’t everything?). Human believes in the power of revision, working with the draft until it becomes, through successive versions, closer and closer to what it should be. But there are also times when you have to put the whole mess aside, and start fresh. Go back to the raw clay. Whatever your chosen technique — blank paper, free writing, writing against the clock, turning off the monitor and writing blind — it somehow frees the clouded vision.

Warm thanks to Trouble’s vets in Halifax and to CullenWeb Animal Eye Specialists in Moncton.



A truly chewed-up squeaky toy



If she likes doing it, Trouble easily finishes what she starts … whether it’s a dish of kibble or the systematic extraction of a squeaker from a toy. If a ball bounces unpredictably and she loses it, she’ll circle in search of it until she’s called away. When she misjudges a stick in the river current, Human is quick to call her back, for fear she will swim too far downstream after it.

If there’s something she doesn’t much like (teethbrushing, say), she can be brought by degrees to tolerate it, with very short periods of exposure and lots of rewards. A crumb of dried liver is very persuasive.

Human, by contrast, finds it easy to leave things unfinished – not a bowl of ice cream, maybe, but a blog post, say, begun last week, and set aside. It’s not just procrastination, because a draft set aside often looks quite different (sometimes even better) when it’s taken out again. If there’s no deadline to bring urgency or desperation to the task, however, it’s hard to pick it up again. Still it’s not very different from brushing Trouble’s teeth. “It’s only for a minute or two.” I don’t have to finish the thing; I only have to read it through and see if there’s a shape in there somewhere. Scribble some notes, jot down an “aha,” and see, that wasn’t so bad after all, was it.



So Human returns to that exercise in revision she’s been working on in several of these posts, promising herself a nice piece of dark chocolate with sea salt when she’s got another draft worked through. Again, she sits on her hands while she reads, resisting the temptation to correct. More important right now to think about how it might reach a reader … and that’s going to take some decisions. Is this meant to be a description or a prescription? Often the rhetorical situation is already given, though it still needs to be thought through a bit: if the purpose is to describe the process of revision, and the reader is, say, a student who is struggling with the whole process, who is the writer in this context? A wise and friendly mentor?
On the other hand, if it were to be prescriptive, choices would be different, even for the same reader. “We” might give way to “you.” The whole thing would be directive.

One of the differences between writing and squeaky toys is that a chewed-over draft eventually produces something better than the original. It may take several revisions, and then finally, we can make the editing changes and corrections that make the text a joy to read. Trouble’s basket of toys, on the other hand, is a sad collection of frayed edges, missing bits, and things that make moist squelchy noises rather than crisp sharp squeaks.

Here are two different results of the revision process – we’ve spared you all the in-between stages and the final editing. You decide if they’re truly chewed up squeaky toys, or something with a bit of life left.

chewed up results

Snowy squint

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Squeaky toys and generalizations

squeaky toy cropTrouble is an inductive thinker: she notices specifics and makes generalizations out of them.  The clinking of tags on a collar means it’s time for a walk. The clinking of tags together with car keys means a trip in the car, possibly to the park. Trouble’s observations about Human’s writing are just that, observations: the description leaves it up to readers to figure out what, if anything, it means beyond the moment of the experience. In other words, if readers want to get anything besides amusement from the Underdesk perspective, they’re going to have to figure out for themselves why Human prints out her rough draft and what she does with it. When Human wants to explain something, she spells it out, and then gives an example.  That’s backwards, Trouble thinks. Who wants generalizations?

Readers who want to learn something want generalizations: the main idea, nice and clear, followed by enough specifics to back it up and make it real. If you want to teach readers something, it’s a good idea not to make them work too hard.  Quintilian said “We should not write so that it is possible for the reader to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us.” It’s the writer who has to do most of the work.

Then what can we pull in the way of a general idea from what was left from last week’s efforts? It’s in the middle: “Human can’t just write something and be done.”  That sentence doesn’t, however, tell us Human does do, just what she doesn’t, so we’ll add “Instead, she writes a rough draft and then revises it.”  Everything else is a description of what that process looks like, mostly from Trouble’s perspective: Human scratches, sighs, throws out and begins again. Some of it is interpreted: Human prints because she wants “to see the whole thing – the whole shape of it.” For the readers’ sake, we’ll spell it all out.

revision spelling it outThat’s the result of revision – the yellow spells out the parts that then got deleted. Notice that when we’re revising we worry more about spelling it out than spelling it right. There’ll be time enough for getting it right later. You don’t paint your vase till it’s been fired in its final shape.

Trouble sighs audibly from Underdesk. All this revision is a bit like worrying a chew toy when its squeaker is dead – what’s the point? The With sighs too deep for wordspleasure’s gone out of it. And to Trouble’s way of thinking, a general idea is even less satisfactory than a real chew toy, even a soggy one with a defunct squeaker. Trouble, as we’ve noted before, is a contemplative canine. It’s the moment that matters.

She’ll never be an academic.

Wet clay

revision 2So this is what it looks like when Human starts to turn last week’s entry into something instructive. She starts by cutting all the irrelevancies. What’s left is highlighted.

Trouble takes issue with the cuts immediately, noting that they are all references to her. Whose blog is this?

Human points out that “Trouble” is only half the title, and this is a demonstration of how a written flight of fancy can be revised for a quite different purpose.

Trouble turns around a couple of times and settles Underdesk with a decided harrumph.

decided harrumph

A decided harrumph

It’s a common but erroneous idea that good writers spit out nearly perfect texts first time. In fact, good writers write first drafts (Anne Lamott minces no words, and calls them “shitty first drafts”). Then they work and rework them into something good. It’s a bit like making pots: you have to assemble a big messy lump of clay to start with. Sometimes you have too much, and sometimes you need to add more, but that first lump never looks like the finished cup or vase.  There’s a lot of moving and removing done to reach the final product. Sometimes there’s not much left. No wonder I sigh.

draftI print out what’s left, defying the limits of the screen. As soon as I reread it, I want to start tidying it up. Since I cut with something more like an axe than a scalpel, there are a lot of rough edges. There’s no point, however, in suturing the bits together, if the bits aren’t all in right places. So I sit on my hands (literally) and look at it again, trying to see the shape of a vase in a heap of wet clay.

Park bench

Trouble’s version of sitting on her hands


Trouble can’t help but notice that this writing stuff makes for restlessness. It’s not the nice sedentary job you might think, where a dog can lie peacefully in Underdesk and dream serious dreams about nothing.


Even on the days when Keyboard clicks steadily overhead, Trouble is jolted awake by Human’s getting to her feet to feed paper to Printer, and then to fetch it back. Human settles back in the chair, usually managing to disturb Underdesk, and instead of the rattle of keys,  there’s shuffling of paper, and sighing, and scratching, and tearing. Keyboard sounds can generally be tucked back into canine semi-consciousness, but the other sounds, being unpredictable, demand alertness. So it’s restless work, both below and above Keyboard.

It seems that Human can’t just write something and be done like dinner. (Is it time yet?) She has to write something and stare at it on the screen, scrolling up and down, and then print it and spread it out so she can see the whole thing – the whole shape of it – which usually results in sighs, and scratching (Human affects a fountain pen, which, despite its name, doesn’t seem to flow so much as furrow the paper.) Sometimes paper is torn from top to bottom; sometimes it goes through the machine that screams as it chews. (Some Tollers scream too, but that’s another story altogether, usually involving the near prospect of swimming. Trouble doesn’t scream, but the Toller scream means that people have to really like the breed in order to take them on, and that’s not a bad thing.) Sometimes paper gets crumpled into a ball, but not the sort that gets thrown for retrieving. Which is a pity. Trouble can tolerate a great deal if a ball gets thrown from time to time.

And then the whole process begins again: Keyboard, Printer, shuffling and sighing. Underdesk gets very uncomfortable. Does Human have to move her feet quite so much? There’s no discernible connection between feet and Keyboard. Trouble would leave, except she is sure that in her absence, the paper ball would be thrown across the room. Or Dish – and Dinner – might appear. It never has appeared outside Kitchen before, but Trouble takes no risks over Dinner.

Trouble is describing drafting and revision. If I were to revise her draft description above, I’d print it out so I could see the whole shape, not just one screenful at a time. Then I’d go through it looking for the things that belong to the topic of drafting and revision, and scratching out the things that have crept in that are irrelevant. That depends on my purpose, of course. If I want to amuse, bring on the irrelevancies; if I want to instruct, the delete key is my best friend.

chasing gulls crop

Removing irrelevancies from the beach this morning