Sunday, May 11, 2014

I have this theory about revision

First, let's talk briefly about conversion rate optimization, or CRO. If you have some kind of transactional website, like an e-commerce site where you sell your small-press poetry books, or a SaaS platform where you try to get people to sign up for a free trial of your software, the page where those transactions happen is called a landing page. And since your success as a business more or less depends on how many people you can get to "convert" on that landing page (i.e., buy the book or sign up for the free trial), businesses usually attempt to optimize their conversion rates through various tests. (Can you see where this is going?)

A lot of the "best practices" and received wisdom around conversion rate optimization have to do with little A/B tests that are basically trying to hack your potential customer's psychology. Some of these tests involve design elements, such as the shape, color, or size of the "Add to Cart" button, or where it is on the page. Others involve copy, like the main heading on the page and "call to action" (the words on the button, like "Start My Free Trial"). Is longer or shorter better? Do exclamation points help? Et cetera, et cetera. The idea is that you can eke a few more conversions out of the same number of visitors with these tricks that make your page more persuasive or frictionless.

Recently, my boss did this webinar with the sensationalist title "Everything You Know About Conversion Rate Optimization Is Wrong." There was a bunch of data and charts and some pictures of unicorns, for some reason, but the basic gist was, stop futzing around with the button color -- you can only make small incremental gains that way, and many of those apparent gains are illusory anyway. If you really want to improve your conversion rate, you need to make radical changes. For example, change the offer: Maybe it's not that people aren't buying that book because of poor landing page design, but because nobody wants that book. You might also need to change the whole flow of your signup process. You can mess around with button color and shape once you know for sure that people actually want what you're peddling.

Everything You Know About Revision Is Wrong

So here's my theory: Revision works the same way. For the same reason that most businesses fail slowly (by focusing on small details instead of big-picture stuff), most writers can't get their work better than a certain level of passable mediocrity because they're "optimizing" the small stuff before they hit on a project that's worth optimizing. They approach revision by thinking about word choice and commas and cuts and line breaks, but those things can only make a poem or a novel or whatever 1-5% better. A radical revision that completely rethinks the scope or the flow or what have you could make it twice as good.

If it sounds like I'm saying "Kill your darlings," I'm not. In fact, I most often approach revision by saving my darlings and killing the rest.

19 comments:

  1. I believe instead of revising you should write another, better poem. The only exception is when revision consists mostly of eliminating stuff in the poem that is just there for no particular reason.

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    1. That's what I usually do, because radical revision is so hard.

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    2. If the stuff is there, how could there be no reason? You put it there; you must have had a reason for putting it there.

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    3. But the reason might have been "this poem isn't long enough."

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    4. Who the fuck would add stuff to a poem because they thought it should be longer? But seriously, I chose words carelessly--and maybe I still am. There's an appreciable difference between "for a reason" and having a reason. If you wrote it you thought of it, and if you thought of it you thought of it for a reason. But that doesn't mean you "have a reason." I think of Ashbery's comments on his "What Is Poetry?" He asked himself what poetry was, and "for some reason" thought of Boy Scouts--conflated two memories of encountering a troop of Boy Scouts. Usually when we say "for some reason" we don't know the reason. My guess is that Ashbery knew the reason but kept it to himself for reasons of decorum. But I like that attitude toward poetry: if I thought of it, I thought of it for some reason, though I may be hard pressed to articulate it. That attitude liberates me from having to rationally justify everything I put in a poem.

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    5. Obviously you don't have to rationally justify everything you put in a poem, but that doesn't mean every part of every poem is good because it must be there for a reason.

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    6. I admit to suggesting that anything that occurs to me merits inclusion just because it must have occurred to me for a reason, but it was Jonathan who advocated cutting stuff that's there for no reason, as if the criterion by which you evaluate stuff is whether it's reasonable.

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    7. I think "for no reason" and "for a reason I can't quite articulate" are different, but it's not my claim so I'll stop defending it.

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  2. Well, you have to do both, don't you?

    I think in a longer piece of writing the right proportion of grind-y revision is probably higher, because whatever the brilliant idea of the piece, you need to do more to ease its digestion.

    But the "endowment effect" of not wanting to radically shake up something you've written is probably greater in longer pieces, too. I've been experimenting with version control systems for prose, and this is one of the things I hope it helps with.

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    1. Yes, but you don't do the fine-tuning until later (whether it's a landing page or a novel). With a poem, you can probably fine-tune first if you want -- it's potentially a waste of time, but a lot less time than fine-tuning a novel that needs major revisions.

      I do think a big barrier for writers is that we get too attached, possibly by going over and over something until you memorize it and can't envision it any other way.

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  3. I have written 50 poems for my current mss and have not revised a single one not even the 39 that have been published. Sorry about the numbers. I just have to convince myself once again that spending 5 years on one single subject is worthwhile. If I stopped to revise as I wrote I wouldn't even be close to halfway through. And if I revise when I'm writing fiction I'm basically screwed because I get so bogged down in it. Write ferociously revise fearlessly but after the writing part.
    xo

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    1. Yes, lately the way I approach a manuscript is to write ferociously until I have too many poems, then just cut out the bad ones!

      Revising-while-writing for fiction definitely seems to be the mind-killer. Or book-killer. I wonder what the optimal gap between writing and revising is.

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  4. "I’ve actually used the same line or idea or image, if I was really in love with it, in multiple published poems."

    I've totally done this as well, probably half a dozen times. Feels kinda cheap but I don't think we're alone--there's an interview somewhere where Donald Revell said that he had the same exact stanza (linebreaks, everything) in four (or something; more than two) different books of his. And when asked about it he said (I'm paraphrasing), "Yeah, I really like that stanza." I feel like mild self-plagiarism is something that serious writers should be doing to a certain extent, if only to better understand why they’re writing the way they are/the way they do. If you read through a Wallace Stevens Collected or even Selected it seems like he self-plagiarizes in some manner constantly and continually—and that’s what makes him Wallace Stevens.

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    1. There's one line that appears in The Self Unstable twice and at this point I can't even remember if I did it on purpose or not. But anything Wallace Stevens does is OK by me.

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    2. Knott self-plagiarized a lot. Plath repeated lines in Ariel, though I'm not sure I noticed that before I read Lowell's intro to it.

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  5. When I write, I usually start with the first line, and work my way through to the last line. Maybe kind of a poem equivalent of shooting a film "in sequence," though the comparison might not be a very precise one.

    I might write and rewrite a line two or three or six or ten times, till I'm fairly sure (or really sure) I've got it write, before I go onto the next line. So in my notebook (the paper notebook I write poems in), the first draft will most of the time also be the final draft, sometimes with lots of lines crossed out and rewritten through the poem. Some poems come out fairly easily and smoothly, and only have a few crossed-out spots; with others, the writing is fairly arduous, and the pages are a moon-cratered map of crossed out and rewritten lines.

    Sometimes I'll find something later that needs to be fixed, a word or two, a phrase that doesn't quite turn right, maybe I'll add or remove a comma, that sort of thing, though quite often once I've gotten to the last line the poem is pretty much as finished as I'm going to get it.

    So in a sense, I don't think much about revision as such, because for me it's always been pretty well ingrained in the initial writing.

    When I feel a poem coming on (or whatever is the best way to describe that somewhat mysterious way poems seem to come to the surface), I usually wait a while, sometimes a few hours or a few days, sometimes longer, before I start writing it down on the page. (Not always -- from time to time I start writing almost as soon as I start feeling the poem, I keep a notebook by my bed at night, etc.). So that most of the time an incipient poem has been subjected to an amount of geological pressure (again maybe not the best way to put it) before I start making it on the page.

    In recent years, I've sometimes written down phrases and words out of sequence, on a separate page, just so I don't forget the pieces of the poem as they float up out of the mist. I make notes, in other words, for reference as I'm writing.

    Years ago, during the earlier years of my writing life, I tended to try to write every poem in one sitting, because I found it very difficult to go back and pick up the thread later. In more recent years, I've found how to sustain my concentration and patience, and if I get stuck at some point in a poem, if I don't know what comes next, I usually will let the poem sit, and I'll wait for more to come. I've waited for years, in a few instances, for the next line. Sooner or later it always comes, if I wait long enough for it.

    I've never tried writing a poem in multiple drafts, taking part of one draft and combining it with part of another draft, moving a section from the end to the beginning, that sort of thing. Or I guess what I mean is, the few rare times I've tried doing anything like that, I haven't been able to, I've just shut down. So far, at least, I've found that I can't write in multiple drafts.

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    1. After some years of Raskolnikoving around a university town I had to grow up and make some money, so I had less time to write, and the busier I got the more process-oriented my poetry got. Often I had to set aside an unfinished poem for a couple weeks, and when I came back to it I needed to be able to resume work on it immediately. I needed to know exactly where I was on it, exactly how much more work I needed to do to finish it, and exactly how to go about that work.

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  6. In the department of "everything you know about... is wrong," a paragraph I found recently, by Robert Bly, talking about poet William Stafford. It's in the Introduction Bly wrote to The Darkness Around Us Is Deep: Selected Poems of William Stafford, which Bly edited.

    Here's Bly on Stafford:

    "William Stafford looks mild, but actually he is quite fierce. I heard a story about a week he spent as teacher at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. The staff emphasized 'finding your voice,' which turned out to be a study of what the poetry establishment wanted at the moment. Every teacher gave one craft lecture. Stafford began, 'I want to say that I don't agree with anything that has been said here this week. You already have a voice and don't need to find one.' He hasn't been invited back."

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