We all have certain writers we’re a bit in awe of, because of their stories and because of the power of their words. To be able to hash through the revision process with such an author is an absolute honor, and I’m thrilled to present you with the following Authors on Editing interview with National Book Award, Newbery Honor, and Coretta Scott King Award recipient Jacqueline Woodson.
Jacqueline Woodson‘s memoir BROWN GIRL DREAMING won the 2014 National Book Award and was a NY Times Bestseller. Her novel, ANOTHER BROOKLYN, was a National Book Award finalist and an Indie Pick in 2016. Among her many awards, she the recipient of the Kurt Vonnegut Award, four Newbery Honors, two Coretta Scott King Awards, and the Langston Hughes Medal. Jacqueline is the author of nearly thirty books for young people and adults including EACH KINDNESS, IF YOU COME SOFTLY, LOCOMOTION and I HADN’T MEANT TO TELL YOU THIS. She served as Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2014-2016, was a fellow at The American Library in Paris, occasionally writes for the New York Times, is currently working on more books, and – like so many writers – lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.
Q & A with National Book Award recipient Jacqueline Woodson
Kris: Do you edit yourself as you write or after you have completed a first messy draft?
Jacqueline: Both—as I go along and then again when the draft is messy and in need of a closer, more cohesive look.
Kris: What does this revision process look like for you? Do you have sweeps that each have a different focus?
Jacqueline: Nope. I just write and rewrite and try to figure out what the heck my book is trying to say and how it’s trying to say it. I read everything out loud, and that gets me where I need to go.
Kris: I love the concept of figuring out what a book is trying to say, because you’re right—writing is such a process of discovery. I’m curious if this is also true for your characters. Writers often struggle with creating individuals that are unique and alive on the page. In your fiction, every character unquestionably has their own voice and personality. What can a writer do in their editing process to ensure each character is fully fleshed out and distinctive?
Jacqueline: I don’t think it happens in the editing process. I think it happens in your everyday living. If you don’t have an interesting and diverse crew to draw inspiration from, you’re not going to be able to tell interesting stories.
Kris: And speaking of interesting stories, In Brown Girl Dreaming, you (seemingly easily) poured yourself, your family, and American history onto the page for an exquisite result. I imagine there was so much that you also considered including but that ending up being cut in the end. How did you decide what to keep and what to remove from your final manuscript?
Jacqueline: I re-read and saw where the book was repetitive, where I’d said what I needed to say but maybe in a different way. Then I had to choose which one of those ways did I want to say that thing. I also took out stuff that didn’t move the story forward. Again, I figured out what the memoir was trying to say. It’s about a very specific moment in my childhood—my coming to consciousness. So any piece that didn’t do that was taken out.
Kris: Does your revision process differ between fiction and memoir?
Jacqueline: It doesn’t. Each book requires some kind of research and some kind of immersion. I try to dig in and focus, no matter what I’m writing.
Kris: Again, I’m just giddy that you’re chatting editing with me. Here’s my biggest question for you: What is the difference between okay writing and powerful writing? Do you have any recommended editing techniques to make the most of every single word?
Jacqueline: Read. Read widely. Read beyond what you love and know. You can’t be a writer without being a reader. Then have a life and live in it. You can’t write if you’re scared. Power writing comes from a certain fearlessness.
Kris: Is there anything you wish you knew about the editing process earlier in your career?
Jacqueline: I don’t look back that way. I think it’s a waste of time. Every moment of my life has led me to this moment, so what I knew then, the mistakes I made then, the drafts I wrote then—all of that got me here. So what I knew then, obviously, was just what I needed to know.
Kris: That’s answer such a powerful answer. It’s one every writer should try to internalize. Every phase of a writing career, every step of the process needs to be there before the next step can take place. Now, after all of this talk of editing, how do you know when a manuscript is officially done?
Jacqueline: When my editor says, “I think this is done!”
And what lovely words those are to hear!
I cannot thank Jacqueline Woodson enough for taking the time to talk editing with me. No matter what step of your literary life you find yourself in, happy writing, everyone.
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