Remember the Big Picture in Revisions
By Stuart Phillips
About a hundred feet down a gentle slope from our house stands the remnants of a small orchard from the 1800s. When we moved in, all that remained were five apple trees, branches so tangled from years of neglect they were almost barren. I pruned them mercilessly, added a couple of pear trees and a couple of cherry trees, then made cedar planter boxes that I stocked with raspberries, blueberries, and lingonberries (thanks IKEA). As I picked berries this summer, the only thing missing was something big and green to screen off the road that dog legs around that corner of the property.
During one of my occasional trawls through Facebook Marketplace I found a listing for arborvitae, so I messaged the seller. He quoted a good price and said he’d be home all afternoon, so I mapped my way out to his house in the middle of nowhere, New York.
He turned out to be a semi-retired commercial landscaper who can’t quite give up the game. This year, he bought about four thousand arborvitaes to supply to projects throughout Upstate New York, and ended the season with about 80 excess. Hence, my deal.
The house was a modest ranch style surrounded by sixty-foot oaks. He was proud to show off the landscaping, pointing out where he was in the midst of building a fire pit and putting in some hardscape, then showing me the packed gravel paths and low-voltage lighting winding throughout the trees. He had worked hard on the property and was justifiably proud.
As we walked around front, he stopped, gestured across the yard into the distance and said “But that’s why I really bought this place.” Across a little road, the land fell away into a valley that opened onto the foothills of the Catskills as they stretched and rolled, crenellations that carried the eye to Cooperstown, to Glimmerglass, to visions of the Deerslayer himself padding softly along the wooded ridge lines. I immediately understood his vision of having his home and property work in harmony with the vista.
After I loaded the bushes, I drove home through bumps on the map: Scotch Bush and Sulfur Springs and Wellsville. As I drove, I thought about this man who spent his entire life digging in the dirt, moving rocks and plants and truckloads of mulch. Yet, when he went to retire, this man who had spent years looking down knew that the most important thing was to look up.
That made me think about the dichotomy writers live with. We spend weeks (months) doing sentence-level revision, but well-crafted words are just colorful plumage if there’s no substance.
I fear that sometimes we get too enamored with the craft, too engaged with a commitment to the process, and we forget those are just tools to help us communicate more effectively. Think about pointillism. It takes infinite care, precision, and craft to place thousands of dots just so. And yet, if you put your nose too close to the canvas there is no La Grande Jatte—there are simply myriads of perfectly-executed dots. It’s only when you step back that your eyes can comprehend the patterns and feel the collective impact of the individual points.
We must do the same with our writing. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, at some point you need to step back from the dot-making and make sure you have something. It can be something beautiful or meaningful or horrifying or amusing or whatever, but it should be something more than just“well written,” more than just perfectly round dots. There needs to be a “big picture.”
I challenge you to add another box to the revision checklist. As you go through your sentences, your lines, your metaphors and similes, ask yourself “How does this choice fit the big picture?” Then, you can make conscious decisions on whether a particular amazing sentence contributes to the overall view, the meaning, the spirit. If it doesn’t, maybe you need to prune it. But in order to make these decisions, in order to give yourself the chance to harmonize your work, when you’re in middle of trimming and clipping your words, you should take a moment and look up and remind yourself what the forest looks like.
Stuart Phillips is an expatriate Mississippian, former Army officer, and recovering lawyer who now lives and writes in the Mohawk Valley of New York. A graduate of Ole Miss, Pepperdine (JD) and Fairfield University (MFA), Stuart is slowly driving himself mad with revisions on The Great Southern Novel. You can follow his descent at stuartphillips.work or on Instagram @deltawriter12.