Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Swoopers and Bashers

I've beeen meaning to write something about Kurt Vonnegut's classification of writers for some time. Here's the classical statement, from chapter 35 of Timequake:

Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter any more, have been either swoopers or bashers. Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn't work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they're done they're done. (118)

I wonder if this distinction holds in its pure form even for writers of fiction. It is especially the basher I'm doubtful about. Does anyone really write without going back over what they've written? But as a description of two different atttitudes to writing, I think it holds.

I started out as a basher by nature. Perhaps even by gender: "Most men are bashers," says Vonnegut, "and most women are swoopers." But I have come to appreciate swooping more recently. I think academic writing is best done by swooping, and I am usually not very hopeful about writers who claim to be bashers. A linear writing process—one that has no way of reversing its direction—is much more likely to get stuck, blocked, or cramped.

Writers who are swoopers, it seems to me, find it wonderful that people are funny or tragic or whatever, worth reporting, without wondering why or how people are alive in the first place. (119)

That probably captures part of the reason swooping is more advisable. In academic writing you are allowed to take the existence of other people more or less for granted.

The only way a basher can "revise" a text is to start over. To rewrite it. A swooper knows that the first draft is only that, and that the final version will emerge after much fixing. A basher finds the idea that there is a "higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum" version of the text abhorent. Drafts are discarded, not corrected. Like I say, given this choice, I think swooping is the wiser approach to academic writing. Try not to worry too much about why people are alive as such.


CLULEY said...

I remember reading somewhere (I think in Stephen King's On Writing) that Kurt Vonnegut would write a page at a time. Once, and only once, he was happy with that page would move on to the next page. Moreover, once he was happy with a page he would not revise it.

Thomas Basbøll said...

That's the second time in a short while that someone mentions King's On Writing. I'll have to have a look. Thanks.

Jonathan said...

I'm a swooper. My wife Akiko is a basher. Once she's done she can turn it in. I'm always writing every part of what I'm writing all at once.

James said...

Supposedly, Tom Robbins described himself like a Basher--writing one sentence at a time until perfect, not revising, then...done.

I think it's bull, of course, but who knows?