Learning by Doing

I have nearly reached the end of the line-editing process for GROUNDED.  The school play is over, the school year is winding down, and my body is fatigued; I’m sick and gross, and have to knock out the rest of these edits from bed.

But I’ll knock ’em out.  They’ll be turned in on time, and I’ll even be mostly satisfied with them.

My growing belief that I can do my job as a writer is a very big deal, to me.  I’m still insecure about other things, like whether or not readers will like my work – I’ll probably always worry about that, because it’s outside my control.  But the part that’s within my control – the part where I write the words, and write them again, and revise and rewrite them until they pass muster – I believe I can do that now.

Ten years ago, I didn’t.  I knew I was capable of one thing: writing a draft.  In my hubris, however, I didn’t realize it was a draft; I thought it was already a super amazing book.  The first editorial conversation I ever had was the one in which I learned that I had only written a draft, and that while it had some good ideas, it needed a complete overhaul in order to make those ideas shine.

I realize now just how fortunate I was to get so much intelligent critical feedback on that draft.  But at the time, I could not feel that way. I walked away from that conversation embarrassed and disappointed, believing I wasn’t a writer after all, and I didn’t attempt any of the revisions that had been suggested.

At the time, I believed that I had stopped writing because I was afraid of further criticism.  Further rejection. Looking back, I can see that wasn’t really the problem.  It wasn’t rejection I feared – it was my own perceived lack of ability.  The real reason I didn’t jump right into revising that draft was that I didn’t believe I could.  I had no confidence in my ability to make it a better book.  I knew how to write, not how to write again.

Of course, as it turns out, writing is writing again.

It was only years later, when I finally grew up and threw myself at that draft like a linebacker that I began to gain confidence in my ability to revise.  The first round of revisions was hard.  Very hard.  It took years.

The second revision began in August of 2012, after I submitted the manuscript to my now-editor, who said, essentially, I like this.  I’m interested in working on this.  Cut 50-100 pages. 

I didn’t know how I was going to cut that many pages. But I was so close to realizing a dream and so determined to do what she was asking that I didn’t crumple at the request.  Also, I had already revised it once.  I knew I could probably do it again.  So I tackled it, and I was able to cut 45 pages.  My editor then asked me to change the first chapter of the story, which I had seen clearly in my head for years.  I struggled.  I grappled.  And I made the changes.

Then my editor wrote me a lengthy editorial letter, which took me four months to address.  (Four months.  Not four years.  Big improvement.)  I addressed it, because I was under contract, and because it was my job – and because I believed that I probably could.  After all, I’d done it before, and more than once.

Now I’m almost done with another long round.  When I opened the line-edited document and saw that my manuscript had transformed one giant, colorful salute to Track Changes, I spent a few minutes in the grip of my old fears.  My editor is intense, and there were literally thousands of suggestions and edits for me to address.  Oh no, cried the old fears, I’m not clever enough, I can’t write well enough, I don’t know all the answers, I’ll never be able to solve all of this in six weeks.  

But that voice was no longer singing solo.  There was a new voice in there too, and the new voice was louder.  You’ve done this repeatedly, said the new voice.  You know how to do this.  One sentence at a time. The ideas will come.  The words will get sharper.   Just go.

It’s the same lesson I’ve had to learn many times: I don’t get better at things by hiding away and wishing I were better, or by waiting for some great wisdom to come to me.  I get better at things by doing them.

Why is it that the simplest lessons take the longest to learn?



  1. Phuong, your words mean a great deal to me. Thank you for taking the time to share them.

  2. Hi Ms.Morrison! This is PhuongN. I just want to say thank you because you have been so much more than a LA teacher to me. As the school year started, I was nervous about myself, and I was not confident about my ability as a student and a person. However, with your admirable dedication and effort into helping me out, and guiding me through my work, you have helped me discover who I am as a person and what I am capable of. You have helped me through this long journey as a middle school student, and in return, I just want to sincerely say thank you for your generous dedication and guidance in helping me out. I hope that you will have great success with your first ever book as well as smooth sailing on your journey through life ahead of you.
    You are the most wonderful teacher that one can ever wish for!
    Sincerely, PhuongN.

  3. Oh and you look really pretty in your profile picture.

    Jackie, Helen, and Anahi

  4. Hi Ms. Morrison! This is Jackie and Helen. Your blog is awesome! We can’t wait until your book comes out. We are both planning to read the whole series. Your book is going to be fabulous because you’re fabulous! You are the best teacher in the world! You understand us teenagers. Btw, the advanced drama showcase was spectacular! There are not enough words to explain how awesome you are! You are like a mother figure to us. We are really sad that you won’t be our language arts teacher next year.

    We love you!
    Jackie, Helen, and Anahi

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