ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): R for Revision

Posted by on Oct 3, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

HiltsSpryFull Disclosure: This text has been revised one time twice three times.

There’s almost nothing better than typing the words “The End” on a first draft. It’s a triumph and we, rightly, revel in it. Within moments, though—sometimes even before we finish up the happy dance—most of us realize that “The End” is an illusion and its real significance is that we can now start revising.

“Huzzah,” I say. “Now the real work can begin.” That’s hyperbole by intent; I’m well aware that completing a first draft is real work. And let me just say right here and now: I resent the process of revision as much as anyone else does. I also know that revising is as much a joy as writing the first draft and anyone who’s ever collapsed in tears over the impossibility of writing the first draft, the last draft, and everything in between knows exactly what I mean.

Even writers fall prey to the idea that a thing is complete when we type the words “The End.” We also aren’t immune to a belief in divine inspiration, a power so great it can take us from the first word to the last in a kind of tsunami of creativity. This is because most writers begin as readers and what we read is…finished work. We read things that are written well and the well-written thing (poem, play, short story, novel, essay, memoir, flash) seems inevitable when one encounters it in published form. Characters are fully realized; syntax is dead-on; the metaphor or turn of phrase that sends a thrill shivering through up the readers’ synapses appears so “right” that it must have always existed just like that. This kind of writing can and does happen in the first draft, but it’s much more likely that the seed of it is planted in the first draft then comes to bloom thanks to the careful pruning of revision. (Look! A metaphor! I suspect this metaphor will not survive revision, which is probably a good thing because it’s a terrible cliché and so very clunky.)

No matter how enamored we are of our writing, however, we owe it to the work to at least keep an open mind about the possibility that revision might be necessary. Every writer is “more servant than master of his story,” as John Gardner wrote in “The Art of Fiction.”

In point of fact, writing is hard and one reason it’s hard is because we are creating something out of nothing more than twenty-six letters and some punctuation marks. Who gets that right the first time? Hardly anyone. Thus, revision.

Once a first draft is complete, though, we need to approach the work in a different way. The first step is reading. And in reading we may see details that we threw, by instinct, into the first draft suddenly form links that are more logical in the reading (“Oh, there are a lot of bridges—literal and metaphorical—here. I bet I meant that.”).

There is, of course, a difference between revision and rewriting. When we are revising we are not starting over, rewriting history with an eye toward altering it in some way to make it more pleasing or persuasive or something. Rewriting assumes that none of the words/sentences/paragraphs that have made their way onto the page deserve to remain. Revision is gentler; break it down by syllable and remember that it is “re-vision”—to see the work again, to reconsider that work. [Note: This is why I warn my students to never revise the original document—much good stuff gets lost forever when we write over the original.]

Revision allows us to remove those things that do not serve the text: the extraneous, the phony, the awkward—most of which begin as our darlings, those “writerly” segments that, clad in feather boas and glitter eyeshadow, shove themselves into the limelight call attention to themselves and make all the other words fade to shadow. [The previous sentence was revised twice thrice before I even got to the period. I can’t wait to see what happens to that sentence when I’m actively revising. I’ll probably cut it because it just SCREAMS “Look at me writing!” and that use of upper case has really got to go.]

The first step in revising, for me, is reading the work out loud. We hear mistakes more readily than we see them (probably because our mind corrects things for us, filling in gaps or eliding over words that we don’t need). Even better, read the work out loud while walking, because this gives us a sense of the rhythm of the sentences and alerts us to those places where the rhythm shifts—sometimes on purpose, of course.

It’s best to print out the pages being revised because a) this makes it easier to mark up the page without getting bogged down and b) if one drops paper it’s likely to cause less expensive damage than dropping a laptop.

Read the whole thing before starting to revise—because revisions are like dominos, make one change and the whole thing shifts.

Share the work with trusted readers. Before you revise based on your own ideas or after you’ve revised—this is entirely an individual choice, of course.

Save the first draft before you revise, then save the file using a new name (because good stuff can get lost, remember?).

Rinse and repeat as needed. Remember this, though: the point of all this hard work (and it is hard work) is to end up with something that will be submitted for publication. Don’t settle into an Escher-like loop where the thing seems to never be “perfect.” Nothing is ever going to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not done.

Elizabeth Hilts writes memoir, essays, and fiction; though she has written poetry, no one really has to know about that. During the academic year, Hilts toils in the fields of academe as an adjunct professor of English and related subjects. She is in a constant state of revision both as a writer and as a human being.


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