I’ve been asked every imaginable question during author interviews. When did I decide to become a writer? What was my favorite book in childhood? Which of my characters was the hardest to write? The only question I was flat-out unable to answer was one that seemed, at the time, entirely absurd. Someone asked me, “What’s your favorite word?”
A single word? I was tempted to quote Lewis Carroll, who wrote in Alice in Wonderland:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Now, however, I know the answer. My favorite word is recursive.
If you google recursive, you’ll find complicated mathematical definitions and descriptions of how computer coding works. For a coder, recursive denotes a process in which a program or piece of code continues to run until certain conditions are met.
For a writer, however, recursive means looping back to revise earlier material in light of what you’ve developed, rethought, or learned. It’s more than revising in the sense of “improvement”—making your writing cleaner and stronger, your scenes more vivid and compelling—although obviously you need to do that too.
Recursive writing is an organic, nonlinear refreshing of the parts in light of an evolving whole—something that most writers do, whether they think of themselves as “plotters” who’ve worked out the structure in advance, or “pantsers” who take a more improvisational approach. Even with a detailed outline, there are always elements that need to be revisited—many times. As Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, said in a 2016 interview for the Chronicle of Higher Education (https://www.chronicle.com/article/scholars-talk-writing-steven-pinker/ ), when asked how he approached the revision of his own writing: “Recursively and frequently.”
I was aware of the recursive nature of writing when I was an academic, writing scholarly papers. More often than not, my ongoing research led to new facts that required me to “loop back” and correct, enhance, or even rethink earlier sections of the paper—adding a reference that brought another nuance or perspective to the topic, offering more context, changing the order of the points I was making, and so on.
It’s not so different in fiction. As my mentor Sandra Scofield wrote to me in a recent email: “Every page you write casts its shadow over the pages that came before, and inevitably, you will discover you have to go back and change something, either then or in revision. I am in the last fifth of my book, and I spend more time going back than writing, adjusting, adjusting. Everything is in flux.” Then she added, “That’s what’s fun about writing a novel.”
Let’s look at some ways we can use recursive writing—or, I should say, recursive rewriting. [Read more…]