Newsletter #3: Fifty First Takes

Fifty First Takes: Revising a Paragraph

In April, I published a long story in the New York Times Magazine about people who live on floating villages in Cambodia. Recently, my friends Amy Benfer and Tom Drury, who teach nonfiction writing at the Berlin Writers' Workshop--here in the wards, where I am the doctor!--asked me to come into class and talk about it.

When I teach creative writing to undergraduates, I find that the distance between fantasy and reality about the writing life is nowhere greater than on the subject of revision. People don't believe in it. They can't believe "real" writers do it. They assume that once a writer gets the hang of her style and approach, the first draft of a story is the final draft, plus or minus a few adverbs. I give them Chris Offutt's essay on "The Eleventh Draft" to no avail -- ditto Eliot's "He Do the Policeman in Different Voices," Carver's "Beginners," and Bishop's many One Arts.

The revision process is different for a magazine story than for a poem, short story, or novel: there are deadlines, questions of timeliness, issues of accuracy and fact-checking, and one or several editors making demands or requesting concessions and compromises at every stage. Yet the fact stands that here, too, a piece of writing takes shape only over many, many revisions, and by the end of the process every sentence has been transformed.

In the interest of shining some light on this private (and often humbling if not humiliating) process, below is the mind-numbing, step-by-step transformation of one paragraph of my Times story from first draft to publication. It's meant to give some idea of the nature and extent of changes made to a single small portion of text in a magazine article. It also happens to be the opening paragraph of the first draft (although not the final published version), so it's one my editors and I thought a lot about.

The process depicted below in extremely tedious--perhaps unreadably tedious--detail omits the long work that preceded the first draft, gathering research and notes into phrases and half-formed sentences, and it doesn't include every change I made to the paragraph between submitted drafts. As it happens, there are 11 distinct versions that I've counted, just like Offutt's 11 drafts (although he didn't claim draft #11 was the end, only that a short story begins to find its settled form there, and indeed there were probably more like 50 different paragraphs involved if you want to take into account all the early notes and microscopic between-draft changes). I'm publishing these outtakes not because I think they're valuable or important to salvage in their own right, nor to demonstrate my abilities as a writer nor my endurance as a reviser. But in the same way I could, at age 16, happily read 10,000 words about David Gilmour's effects pedals in Guitar World or MOJO, so did I, at one point in my writing career, long for highly technical, unvarnished guides to writing and revising material for publication, no matter what or by whom. Such obsessive anatomies are still surprisingly hard to find. Here's one of them, warts and all.

As always, thanks for reading. This is my third in a series of occasional letters, designed to force me to develop teaching materials and, uh, avoid Twitter. Letters are collected here.

By the way, I have an essay in the summer issue of frieze magazine. It's about owls, Germany's first mosque, the forensic arts, and Lawrence Abu Hamdan, and it's available online here.

xo
Ben



A Single Paragraph, from First Draft to Publication
Draft #1 Your first draft is about getting everything down on the page. No one else will see it. No one else should see it. It’s your private word barf. Anne Lamott calls it the Shitty First Draft, or SFD. Below is the opening paragraph of my SFD.

I always knew this story would require a lot of geographical and logistical information, and that I'd have to include it early on, since even the setting would be unfamiliar to most readers, never mind the political context. Without thinking too hard about how the story should begin, I wrote a first attempt at an opener that consciously followed a John McPhee-style wide-angle approach: it zooms out from the village to an entire region of the planet, and backwards in time from the present to the distant past. It’s based loosely on the opening of McPhee’s The Control of Nature
and some other essays of his I was reading at the time. An admission: I’ll frequently model openings or crucial paragraphs on pieces of writing I like, especially in the early drafts since I know they will be rendered unrecognizable by the revisions ahead.

Chong Koh is a handsome fleet of houseboats and junks, one of hundreds of floating villages, comprising many ten thousands of families, on the Tonlé Sap River and lake. Tonlé Sap is sometimes described as Cambodia’s heart, both for its rhythmic flood pulse and the role it plays in the country’s economy and food chain. Most of the Cambodian diet, including nearly all of its protein, comes from the Mekong Delta of which the Tonlé Sap is the largest, most fertile depression. Eels, prawn, snails, and above all fish grow monstrous and plentiful here, particularly in the fecund bottleneck where, viewed from above, the river appears to fray into a dozen delicate blue fibers before braiding itself back into open water. During the monsoon, rains engorge the lake to five times its dry-season size, a Connecticut of submerged countryside, and for six months of the year the swollen river flows in reverse, up from Vietnam to the lake, two miracles of plenty which over the millennia have brought fishermen and rice farmers from distant fiefdoms to the rich delta shoreline. At its zenith, between the ninth and twelfth centuries, the Khmer Empire ruled much of Southeast Asia from the temple city of Angkor Wat on the northern edge of Tonlé Sap, the largest pre-industrial settlement known to man: a mighty vassalizing force, founded on fishing, irrigation, wet agriculture, and the backs of innumerable slaves.

Draft #2 In revising my SFD, before any editors became involved, I recognized that there were too many long, winding sentences in the opening. This is a first-draft habit I have. (I find that it’s good to recognize the habits you lean on in drafting so that you can immediately target the em-dash or adverb or whatever in your first revision.) In this revision, I tried to wrangle with the especially unwieldy last sentence. I was still on the McPhee kick of showing the whole world from 30,000 feet, so not much has changed other than the final sentences.

Chong Koh is a handsome fleet of houseboats and junks, one of hundreds of floating villages, comprising many ten thousands of families, on the Tonlé Sap River and lake. Tonlé Sap is sometimes described as Cambodia’s heart, both for its rhythmic flood pulse and the role it plays in the country’s economy and food supply. Most of the Cambodian diet, including nearly all of its protein, comes from the Mekong Delta of which Tonlé Sap Lake is the largest, most fertile depression. Eels, prawn, snails, frogs, and especially fish grow monstrous and plentiful here, particularly in the fecund bottleneck where, viewed from above, the river appears to fray into dozens of delicate blue fibers before braiding itself back into open water. During the monsoons, the swollen Mekong forces the Tonlé Sap River to flow in reverse, up from Vietnam, and the lake engorges to five times its dry-season size, two miracles of plenty which over the millennia have brought fishermen and rice farmers from distant fiefdoms to the rich delta shores. To control food is to control people, and in its twelfth-century prime the Khmer Empire ruled over the bulk of mainland Southeast Asia from the temple city of Angkor Wat on the northern edge of Tonlé Sap. It was a mighty vassalizing force. A million people lived at Angkor Wat and those who weren’t peasants were slaves.

Draft #4 I showed a third draft (which I'm skipping here) to two close friends, each of whom made valuable suggestions. The opening became shorter and simpler. This is the first draft I sent to my editor at the Times.

Chong Koh is a handsome fleet of houseboats and junks, one of hundreds of floating villages, comprising many ten thousands of families, on the Tonlé Sap River and lake. Tonlé Sap is sometimes described as Cambodia’s heart, both for its rhythmic flood pulse and the role it plays in the country’s economy and food supply. Most of the Cambodian diet, including nearly all of its protein, comes from the Mekong Delta of which Tonlé Sap Lake is the largest, most fertile depression. Eels, prawn, snails, frogs, and especially fish grow monstrous and plentiful here, particularly in the fecund bottleneck where, viewed from above, the river appears to fray into dozens of delicate blue fibers before braiding itself back into open water. During the monsoons, the swollen Mekong forces the Tonlé Sap River to flow in reverse, up from Vietnam, and the lake engorges to five times its dry-season size, two miracles of plenty which over the millennia have brought fishermen and rice farmers from distant fiefdoms to the rich delta shores. In its twelfth-century prime the Khmer Empire ruled over the bulk of mainland Southeast Asia from the temple city of Angkor Wat on the northern edge of Tonlé Sap.

Draft #5 Following my editor’s early notes, the opening paragraph in the next draft (draft #5 by my count, although it's only the second one my editor saw) became about 30 words shorter. Most of his comments were global, rather than specific to any given section, and were mainly concerned with shortening the article from 12,000 words to about 8,000, so I was still editing on my own by feel, trying to make the opening as short, streamlined, and information-dense as possible.

Chong Koh is a handsome fleet of houseboats and junks, one of hundreds of floating villages, comprising many ten thousands of families, on the Tonlé Sap River and lake. Tonlé Sap is sometimes described as Cambodia’s heart, both for its rhythmic flood pulse and the role it plays in the country’s economy and food supply. Most of the Cambodian diet, including nearly all of its protein, comes from the Mekong Delta of which Tonlé Sap is the largest, most fertile depression. Eels, prawn, snails, frogs, and especially fish grow monstrous and plentiful here, particularly in the fecund bottleneck where, viewed from above, the river appears to fray into dozens of delicate blue fibers before braiding itself back into open water. During the monsoons, the swollen Mekong forces the Tonlé Sap River to flow in reverse, up from Vietnam, and the lake engorges to five times its dry-season size, two miracles of plenty which over the millennia have brought fishermen and rice farmers from distant fiefdoms to the rich delta shores.

Draft #6 After showing my editor draft #5, which was not only streamlined but now somehow more boring than ever, he suggested we change the opening. “McPhee is a great model," he said, "but he usually had 15,000 or 20,000 words to work with in a New Yorker article, and we have 6,000 to 8,000.” The slow burn was not going to pull a reader in with a story this short. It didn’t move quickly enough. So we moved some paragraphs around, and this new paragraph became the opening. (In an early interim draft, I had actully already played with moving this paragraph to the start, so it wasn’t difficult to make the switch. To my surprise, this new opening survived virtually unchanged until publication.)

The best handyman living among the boat people in Chong Koh was named Taing Hoarith. Most days Hoarith woke up around 5:00 a.m. and bought a bowl of noodle soup from a passing sampan, the same genre of wandering bodega from which his wife, Vo Thi Vioh, sold vegetables through the village, houseboat to houseboat. When she left for the day, around six, Hoarith rolled up their floor mat and got to work.

The paragraph under discussion was split into two (later three) paragraphs and moved later in the piece. For this exercise we’ll keep following that “paragraph,” which in this draft (the sixth by my count) becomes two paragraph, one of which appears in the first section, the second of which opens a new section:

Chong Koh is a handsome fleet of houseboats and junks, one of hundreds of floating villages, comprising many ten thousands of families, on the Tonlé Sap River and lake, in Cambodia. The houseboats take every conceivable shape, from tumbledown rafts to decked rosewood manors, but most are one-room clapboard cabins comprised of three walls on a bamboo frame, supported by a matrix of overturned jars or oil drums. The villages, too, are diversely organized. Some are labyrinthine extensions of nearby towns, with broad canals and twisting alleyways, and floating temples, schoolrooms, and cell-phone shops. Chong Koh, near the provincial capital of Kampong Chhnang, is suburban and tidy by comparison. Each row of squat houses makes a right angle with the shore. […]

The Tonlé Sap is often described as Cambodia’s heart, both for its rhythmic flood pulse and the sustaining role it plays in the country’s economy and food supply. Most of the Cambodian diet, including nearly all of its protein, comes from the Mekong Delta of which Tonlé Sap Lake is the largest, most fertile depression. Eels, shrimp, snails, frogs, and fish grow monstrous and plentiful here, particularly in the fecund bottleneck where, viewed from above, the river appears to fray into dozens of delicate blue fibers before braiding itself back into open water. There is no place on earth remotely like it. For six months, during the monsoons, the swollen Mekong forces the Tonlé Sap River to flow in reverse, up from Vietnam, and the lake engorges to five times its dry-season size, swamping the country, two miracles of plenty which over the millennia have brought fishermen and rice farmers from diverse fiefdoms to the rich delta shores. Today, along the riverbank near Chong Koh, Khmer and muslim Cham families live in stilted houses lofted over the flood plain. You can hear French and Chinese at the town market. But the ethnic Vietnamese, Cambodia’s largest minority, who have no legal citizenship and no land rights, are forced to make their homes on the water. In Cambodia, those living on the water are called boat people, regardless of ethnicity, but the Vietnamese are also called yuon, a ubiquitous slur that means, approximately, “savage.”

Draft #7 The seventh draft was about making the major structural changes (which included cutting an additional 1/3 of the text from draft 6). The first paragraph had to transition from the in-scene introduction of the main protagonist to a description of his world. The second paragraph, which now begins a new section, had to provide the kind of spatial and historical location I had originally planned to open the piece with. My editor suggested that we should “back the camera up” even further, beyond Cambodia, so I introduced the setting via the Mekong River.

Chong Koh is one of hundreds of floating villages, comprising tens of thousands of families, on the Tonlé Sap River and lake of the same name in Cambodia. Dangers on a floating village multiply in the rainy season. When I first visited, in late July, there was always something for Hoarith to do: repairing storm damage in a wall of thatched palm, clearing the water hyacinth that collected along the upstream porch. Sometimes the house had to be towed closer to the receding shoreline so that storms or the waves of passing ships would not capsize it, and every few months Hoarith got his ancient air compressor working and swam beneath the house with a rubber hose between his teeth to refill the cement jars that kept the whole thing buoyant. He was mindful of pythons. […]

The Mekong is the world’s eighth largest river by discharge and its lower basin is vast, encompassing parts of China, Myanmar, and Thailand, virtually all of Laos and Cambodia, and most of southern Vietnam, where, after a 2,700-mile journey across five national borders, the mother of rivers divaricates into a complex delta network and drains into the South China Sea. Tonlé Sap Lake sits roughly in the middle of this lush expanse. On a map, it appears as a crooked blue finger extending from the Mekong near Phnom Penh, where four large rivers meet, but it is more often described as Cambodia’s heart, both for its rhythmic flood pulse and the sustaining role it plays in the country’s economy and food supply.

Tonlé Sap’s unique hydrology makes it one of the most fertile ecosystems on the planet. For six months of the year, the Tonlé Sap River flows from the lake to Phnom Penh. But during the rainy season, the swollen Mekong forces the Tonlé Sap to flow in reverse, and the lake engorges to five times its dry-season size, two miracles of plenty which over the millennia have drawn fishermen and rice farmers alike to its doubly-silted, nutrient-rich shores. Eels, frogs, shrimp, and fish grow monstrous and plentiful here, particularly in the fecund bottleneck where, viewed from above, the river appears to fray into dozens of delicate blue fibers before braiding itself back into open water.

Draft #8 After some more edits for style and clarity, my original paragraph--now three paragraphs--had taken its approximate final form. But my editor and I are still tweaking and improving, solving problems of vagueness (see his note below), accuracy, and style. And we’re still figuring out where the paragraph breaks will go. It’s not a science; each draft I made a few small changes by instinct and feel.

Chong Koh is one of hundreds of floating villages, comprising tens of thousands of families, on the Tonlé Sap River and lake of the same name in Cambodia. Dangers on a floating village multiply in the rainy season. When I first visited, in late July, there was always something for Hoarith to do: repairing storm damage in a wall of thatched palm, clearing the water hyacinth that collected along the upstream porch. Sometimes the house had to be towed closer to the receding shoreline so that storms or the waves of passing ships would not capsize it, and every few months Hoarith got his ancient air compressor working and swam beneath the house, a rubber hose between his teeth, to refill the cement jars that kept the whole thing buoyant. He was mindful of pythons.
[…]

The Mekong is the world’s eighth largest river by discharge. Its lower basin is vast, encompassing parts of China, Myanmar, and Thailand, virtually all of Laos and Cambodia, and most of southern Vietnam, where, after a 2,700-mile journey across five national borders, this mother of rivers divaricates into a complex delta network and drains into the South China Sea. Tonlé Sap Lake sits roughly in the middle of this lush expanse. On a map, it appears as a crooked blue finger extending from the Mekong near Phnom Penh, where four large rivers meet. But it is more often described as Cambodia’s heart, both for its rhythmic flood pulse and the sustaining role it plays in the country’s economy and food supply.

Tonlé Sap’s unique hydrology makes it one of the most fertile ecosystems on the planet. For six months of the year, the Tonlé Sap River flows from the lake to Phnom Penh. But during the rainy season, the swollen Mekong forces the Tonlé Sap to flow in reverse, and the lake engorges to five times its dry-season [width?volume?][[size]], two miracles of plenty which over the millennia have drawn fishermen and rice farmers alike to its doubly silted, nutrient-rich shores. Eels, frogs, shrimp, and fish grow monstrous and plentiful here, particularly in the fecund bottleneck where, viewed from above, the river appears to fray into dozens of delicate blue fibers before braiding itself back into open water.

Draft #9/#10 I’m including drafts 9 and 10 together to show you that in later drafts, you might not change a paragraph at all except for one or two words. This is a good thing. The longer I can comfortably leave text in a settled form, the more certain I am that it’s ready for publication. These sections did not change much at all in later drafts—until fact-checking, that is. There was, however, one phrase I had always been unhappy with until this draft: that fish and other animals “grow monstrous and plentiful” in the space where the river opens out. This didn’t feel like an elegant or evocative description of the fecundity of the lake. The fishermen themselves would never describe their hauls as “monstrous,” so it also felt firmly like an outsider’s perspective. “Proliferate with tropical abandon,” my fix in this draft, is a little more interesting and stylish than my earlier phrasing, in my opinion at least, and certainly more neutral with respect to point of view.

Chong Koh is one of hundreds of floating villages, comprising tens of thousands of families, on the Tonlé Sap River and lake of the same name in Cambodia. Dangers on a floating village multiply in the rainy season. When I first visited, in late July, there was always something for Hoarith to do: repairing storm damage in a wall of thatched palm, clearing the water hyacinth that collected along the upstream porch. Sometimes the house had to be towed closer to the receding shoreline so that storms or the waves of passing ships would not capsize it, and every few months Hoarith got his ancient air compressor working and swam beneath the house, a rubber hose between his teeth, to refill the cement jars that kept the whole thing buoyant. He was mindful of pythons. […]

The Mekong is the world’s eighth largest river by discharge and its lower basin is vast, encompassing parts of China, Myanmar, and Thailand, virtually all of Laos and Cambodia, and most of southern Vietnam, where, after a 2,700-mile journey across five national borders, the mother of rivers divaricates into a complex delta network and drains into the South China Sea. Tonlé Sap Lake sits roughly in the middle of this lush expanse. On a map, it appears as a crooked blue finger extending from the Mekong near Phnom Penh, where four large rivers meet. But it is more often described as Cambodia’s heart, both for its rhythmic flood pulse and the sustaining role it plays in the country’s economy and food supply.

Tonlé Sap’s unique hydrology makes it one of the most fertile ecosystems on the planet. For six months of the year, the Tonlé Sap River flows from the lake to Phnom Penh. But during the rainy season, the swollen Mekong forces the Tonlé Sap to flow in reverse, and the lake engorges to six times its dry-season expanse, two miracles of plenty which over the millennia have drawn fishermen and rice farmers alike to its doubly silted, nutrient-rich shores. Eels, frogs, shrimp, and fish proliferate with tropical abandon, particularly in the fecund bottleneck where, viewed from above, the river appears to fray into dozens of delicate blue fibers before braiding itself back into open water.

#11: Final, Published Draft After four days working with two incredible, diligent, friendly fact checkers, I had to make more changes to this paragraph. We couldn’t source certain statistics to our satisfaction. (E.g. “the Mekong is the world’s eighth largest river by discharge” turns out to be a figure that changes year to year.) The phrase “most of southern Vietnam” also turned out not to be accurate based on how we were defining “lower basin.” Stuff like that. We also spent several hours talking and thinking about the sentence that describes how the Mekong winds across several national borders. It was important for me include some sentence like this in the piece in order to show how artificial and random national borders can appear in Southeast Asia, especially if you live your life by the flow of the Mekong, as my subjects did. I also wanted the sentence itself to wind riverlike around these different ideas. But we ran into some trouble even at the grammatical level: the Mekong’s lower basin spans five national borders, but in the sentence, the antecedent I use is the river itself, upper and lower, which crosses between five and six borders, one of which is Tibet—a border, but not a widely recognized one. We went back and forth on how to include that fact and in the end had to omit it, making other changes to ensure the sentence was technically accurate and generally sensible. (The piece was already in layout and could not change drastically. One accepts imperfect solutions to insoluble problems.) Below is the final version as it appears on the web and in print:

Chong Koh is one of hundreds of floating villages, comprising tens of thousands of families, on the Tonle Sap River and the lake of the same name in Cambodia. Dangers on a floating village multiply in the rainy season. When I first visited, in late July, there was always something for Hoarith to do: repairing storm damage in a wall of thatched palm, clearing the water hyacinths that collected along the upstream porch. Sometimes the house had to be towed closer to the receding shoreline so that storms or the waves of passing ships would not capsize it. Every few months, he got his ancient air compressor working and swam beneath the house, a rubber hose between his teeth, to refill the cement jars that kept the whole thing buoyant. He was mindful of pythons. […]

THE MEKONG RIVER’S lower basin is vast, encompassing parts of Myanmar and Thailand, virtually all of Laos and Cambodia and parts of southern Vietnam, where, after a 3,000-mile journey across five national borders, the mother of rivers divaricates into a complex delta network and drains into the South China Sea. Tonle Sap Lake sits roughly in the middle of this lush expanse. On a map, it appears as a crooked blue finger extending from the Mekong near Phnom Penh. But it is more often described as Cambodia’s heart, both for its rhythmic flood pulse and the sustaining role it plays in the country’s economy and food supply.

Tonle Sap’s unique hydrology makes it one of the most fertile ecosystems on the planet. For half the year, the Tonle Sap River flows southeast from the lake to Phnom Penh. But during the rainy season, the swollen Mekong forces the Tonle Sap to flow in reverse, and the lake engorges to as much as six times its dry-season expanse, two miracles of plenty which over the millenniums have drawn fishermen and rice farmers alike to its doubly silted, nutrient-rich shores. Eels, frogs, shrimp and fish proliferate with tropical abandon, particularly in the fecund bottleneck where, viewed from above, the river appears to fray into dozens of delicate blue fibers before braiding itself back into open water.

Would I make further improvements to this published version if given the chance? Of course! But the beauty of publication is that you can't make any more changes, even if you'd like to. I guess that's the moral. The end.