Writing as Curation

Posted On: 2019-09-23

By Mark

One of my early school memories regards what to do to with words that don't belong on the page. I recall my teacher criticizing my penmanship, not for what was written on the page, but for what was unwritten. As a young writer, I was adamant that when a word must be redacted, it must be rendered completely unrecognizable. No eraser was strong enough (the ghost of the wrong words still lingered) so it must be purged with ink upon ink - scribbled over so that even the original stroke of the pen could not show through. Yet, for my teacher, the only "right" way to remove words was with a single, delicate line, striking through the word, with naught but hope keeping the reader from gazing upon the uncurated mess of previous attempts. In time I learned to comply, but it was many years before I could do so without my face flush with shame.

Fundamental to this dispute was the idea that the final product of writing is the result of careful curation. Each word is chosen, not just for its literal fitness but also for its prosody*. Words on the page should be comfortable, neatly spaced and positioned - yet, when those words enter the reader's mind, they should be evocative - beautiful, vivid, and powerful. As a young person learning to write, I was attempting to develop this aspect of the craft, yet the reality of my tools rendered this impossible: a single sheet of paper meant that the first draft must also be the final one.

* I use prosody here (and generally) to mean the sound of the words - the rhythm, timbre, and auditory texture. Although prosody is commonly associated with poetry, paying attention to prosody can improve most forms of writing.

Although I was primarily focused curating the individual words, such curation is important in many other aspects of writing. Whole paragraphs may be rewritten or removed, and even whole works may be abandoned or rewritten. Often such dramatic changes are in response to higher-level factors, such as theme or tone, which are themselves also eligible for curation. Outright abandoning one idea in favor of a better one is fairly common (I've done so for several of my blog posts) but such curation can also take on the form of refinement: an idea may be discarded in favor of a more nuanced interpretation of that same idea.

As an example of how such high-level curation can occur: this blog post originally began as a reflection on a recent change I made to a character. The character in question is one that had caused me quite a bit of grief: across several iterations I have tried to sculpt a backstory for the character that adequately motivates her existing actions, but none of the attempts could provide a solid enough foundation to understand what she will do in future situations. The recent change to this character was quite dramatic (her backstory was completely replaced - new home, relationships, social class, etc.) but I am expecting it is worth the rework: it provides much better support for highly specific and personal motivations.

Going into this blog post, I had assumed I would write a bit about how this one character had changed over those many iterations, but as I worked on it, I realized that the post was much stronger if I focused on the underlying premise that enables these changes: the idea that dramatic changes are permissible, even favorable, if they benefit the work. From that, I gradually honed that idea further, ultimately arriving on the version that you can see above: that the final version of a written work is a carefully curated result of all the former incarnations of that work*.

* One of the benefits of focusing on this idea of curation, rather than making claims about whether or not it is "good" to rework something, is that it avoids taking a side in the conflict between rework and deadlines. Managing the trade-off between timeline and quality is nuanced and situation-specific, so I try to avoid making claims that might suggest universally favoring one of the two.

Hopefully this post has provided an interesting perspective on writing. While I haven't had quite so refined a phrase for it, I think I've generally been aware of the amount of rework that is involved in writing (both in mine and in others'.) Creating a well-curated piece of written work has always provided me with delight - whether that's a blog, a story, or even an email. It is my sincere hope that this post has provided you with delight as well.