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The reason I have trouble with anagrams is that I mentally transform letters into phonemes and then mix up the phonemes in my head instead of the letters. If I could just back up a step, and mix up the letters while they’re still just letters, I’d be a lot better at making new words.

A similar transformation happens to words when I write. Once a scene is written, I see it in my head. In that image, the scene seems like it has actually happened, and the elements of that scene have three dimensions. They have backstories and consequences and are really there to me.

When I need to change something in revision, it can be difficult to imagine making something change or disappear. In my mind, it has happened. It’s there. Pulling it out to replace it seems like an immense task.

When I look at the actual words that made the image, though, there are often only a few. It’s often a simple thing to magic away a sentence or two, and then the image created in my head completely transforms.

The best way I can describe my challenge with revision is that the words on the page are a recipe and the image they create in my head is a finished cake. I look at the cake and wonder, “How am I going to tease one ingredient out of this without ruining the rest of it? It’s impossible!” But of course, revision doesn’t deal with the finished cake. Revision is a change to the recipe. The cake is remade fresh every time the page is read.

Changing recipes is actually easy, just like mixing up letters to make new words is. I just have to remind myself to deal with just letters, or just words, before I’ve baked them into a finished product in my mind.


From “Envoy” by Billy Collins, a message to his just-published book:

"stay out as late as you like,
don't bother to call or write,
and talk to as many strangers as you can."