Ellen Meister: Bashing Through Revision

In Business of Writing, Craft, Interviews, Profiles on January 20, 2010 at 1:45 am

The title of this blog post is misleading, lest you think Ellen Meister, author of three novels, most recently The Smart One and the forthcoming, The Other Life, is anything other than elegant.

However, she’s got one of the wryest wits I know and it shows in everything she writes. (She’s also funny in person!) So leave it to her to quote Kurt Vonnegut right off the bat. Enjoy!


How do you approach revision? 

Kurt Vonnegut once said there are two types of writers—swoopers and bashers. Swoopers write the whole first draft and then go back and edit. Bashers hammer away at each paragraph before going to the next. He was careful to point out there’s no right  or wrong here—just two different styles.

I fall into the basher category,  which I think classifies me as anal. I just can’t let go of a paragraph until it feels right. That’s not to say I don’t go back and edit again after the whole thing is done, but I tend to keep the draft pretty tight.

 What aspect of revision do you find the most difficult?

When my editor or agent asks for a revision to the story that creates a ripple effect through the book, I just want to cry. It’s not ego—I have no trouble killing my darlings—but the daunting amount of work involved. It’s overwhelming. But … I kick the wall, whine and moan to a few close friends, and then get to work.

 What is the most difficult revision you ever had to do and why?

Before submitting my first book to editors, my agent asked me to make the through-line stronger. Apparently the book spent too much time meandering into subplots. The revision required a more massive rewrite than I understood, and I tried again and again to fix it by applying band-aids. After the third go-round, I realized I had to deconstruct the whole thing and rebuild it. It was a painful but valuable lesson.

 What aspect of revision do you embrace or even look forward to?

I love when a manuscript is really close to being ready to submit and I go through it one last time in hard copy with an erasable pen in hand (I prefer these to colored pencils). At that point the book is pretty tight, and all I need to do is make elegant tweaks.

 How many drafts does it take you to reach a finished book?

This is question I can never really answer, because I don’t write one full draft before going back to edit. With me, it’s a relentless, ongoing process. Every day when I sit down at the computer, I read and edit what I wrote the day before. And every two chapters or so I print out the whole manuscript and edit in hardcopy. By the time I’m finished with a book every chapter has been revised dozens of times.

 What advice do you have for the aspiring writer about revising one’s work?

 I have an old friend who is one of those rare and lucky individuals blessed with a rock solid ego. Back in college he had a talent for writing, so I asked him why he gave up. He confessed that he’s just too self-confident to be a writer, saying he could never edit his work because he thought everything he wrote was so good to begin with.

 That’s my way of telling you to embrace your insecurities. They’re not going anywhere anyway, so just recognize that the constant questioning and second-guessing you do is what drives you to deliver the best work you can.

 Now get back to it.


Ellen Meister is the author of three novels, THE OTHER LIFE (forthcoming from Putnam, 1/11), THE SMART ONE (HarperCollins/Avon 2008) and SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA (Morrow/Avon 2006), as well as numerous short stories. In addition to writing, she served as editor for an online literary magazine and currently curates for a literary series that airs on NPR. Ellen also does public speaking about her books and related issues. She lives on Long Island with her husband and three children. For more information visit Ellen’s website at

  1. Thanks, Jordan. Great interview … and great series. I love reading about how different writers approach revision.

  2. Oh, how well I understand your comments about the ripple effect and having to go back and deconstruct/rebuild! Wonderful interview between two very talented and generous women!

  3. This was easy to read, easy to understand, and helpful.

  4. Come dancer, come prancer, come Ellen Meister the best basher in the biz. All of that laboring over paragraphs resulted in her three fabulous novels. Keep going Ellen. Who needs another swooper?

  5. Thanks Jordan and Ellen for sharing this insightful conversation.

  6. The ripple effect — can be temporarily paralyzing. It’s comforting to know that others struggle like that, too. Great interview you two.

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