George Saunders is an American author who contributes essays and short stories to The New Yorker and several other publications. Saunders has published several volumes of his short stories, for which he's received prestigious writing awards, including the National Magazine Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and a Macarthur Fellowship, which is widely referred to as a "genius grant."

In 2017, he won Britain's most prestigious writing award, the Man Booker Prize, for his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, which describes the night President Lincoln visited his 11-year-old son's body in a Washington graveyard.

In an essay he penned for The Guardian shortly after receiving the prize, Saunders provides a refreshingly honest and insightful glimpse into the process he follows as he writes--and meticulously rewrites--his prose.

He starts by debunking one of the myths surrounding the creation of art. "We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he 'wanted to express', and then he just, you know...expressed it...The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully. An artist works outside the realm of strict logic."

So what does Saunders recommend writers do?

"My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with 'P' on this side ('Positive') and 'N' on this side ('Negative'). I try to read what I've written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might..."

"Then edit, so as to move the needle into the 'P' zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts."

Like a "cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments." In another analogy, Saunders compares the artist to an optometrist, who is always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?"

"The result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in 'real life' -- funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining. And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual."

Saunders' method is not just about making him sound wiser and more entertaining on the page; it's about respecting his reader, and creating a connection with her: "This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her." 

"You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: 'No, she's smarter than that. Don't dishonor her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.' And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too."

Unlike George Saunders, I don't write fiction (not yet, at least). But I share the same obsession that he describes in his essay with refining my (non-fiction) prose until it checks a number of imaginary boxes in my head.

Is what I'm writing clear to the reader? Will they understand my message, even if they've never read about the topic before? 

Do my words, sentences, and paragraphs hold together as a logical and seamless whole? Does one word lead logically to the next, and does one paragraph transition logically to the next?

Do my sentences pass the "read aloud test"? Am I modulating the tone of my writing "voice" correctly? If I were to read my writing to an audience, would it sound pleasing to the ears of my listeners, would it be worth not stealing another glance at their smartphones?

Like mine, your writing process may differ from Saunders', and the genre you write in may also differ. But the goal for any type of writing you do should be to transmit your ideas and emotions to your readers, with the hope that they'll finish your writing with a feeling that they learned something new, and, perhaps, feel inspired to change how they think about their world, or try something new that impacts their lives. 

Published on: Jun 25, 2018