Rambling On Revision

Ah! Revision is not just a tidying process, they say. Sweeping those last pieces of dirt into the pan.  Let’s delve deeper into this concept.    I’ve heard elsewhere that revision is a job for optimists. This leads to another perspective. Preparing to revise means facing what’s important to you, the writer. It’s easy to confuse fixing errors with revising ideas and reconfiguring the shape of text.

     Consider comparing the process of revision to gardening. Just as a gardener prunes overgrown branches and weeds out the unnecessary to let the garden flourish, a writer cuts and shapes their prose to nourish and bring out the beauty of their ideas.

   Furthermore, revision comes with torment (though not torture)

     On a more personal note, can I learn to enjoy this revising process? I don’t like to write as much as I like to have written.

    Can I get to love pressing the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity? Can I get to love to replace a humdrum word with one that has more precision or color? Can I get to love to strengthen the transition between one sentence and another? Can I get to love to rephrase a drab sentence to give it a more pleasing rhythm or a more graceful musical line? Can I Can I.

  As a result, with every small refinement, I feel that I’m coming nearer to where I would like to arrive, and when I finally get there, I know it was the rewriting, not the writing, that won the game.

    Furthermore, there’s an intriguing aspect to consider. Wow, could it be we revise not only to find out what we really think or what the audience will accept but to find out what the writing itself wants? That is intriguing, mystifying, and worth exploring.

     Imagine if we shift our perspective, how differently might you think about your writing if you were to imagine your idea as an almost living thing that needs care, grooming, and nourishment? A big, beastly creature you can never really “master” but with which you want to coexist?

    This brings us to a crucial point, revising is going back to a piece of writing and trying to hear what’s in the words you’ve got so far. What’s missing, what’s in the way, what’s in the wrong place or in the wrong?

    As writers, we want our writing to say what it was meant to say, and we revise to make that possible. That’s why we need to listen to our words — not just the words themselves but their layers and origins, their gaps and pauses, and the big and small shapes into which they form ideas. Want to be a better writer? Listen more closely to what the words do. Okay Nancy you were right on.

   When you find something that strikes you as particularly well-worded or argued, stop. Read it out loud. Read it out loud again. Copy it down. Take notes. What makes it work for you? What’s special about it?

   The more you can tell yourself about your positive response to good work produced by others, the closer you’ll come to understanding what you’re after with your writing.

     We can, however, think about revision with the care we might bring to any other subject we write about. What’s revision, anyway? Multiple iterations? Sure. Attention to structure, to how the work is laid out and proceeds? Yes. The sound it makes in the reader’s head, the presentation of ideas, brevity? Persuasiveness.

     What were you thinking when you wrote that draft? Good revision is as much about the why of writing as about the what and the how of writing. It can only tell you that you are stretching small ideas over big spaces, reordering elements to make new connections, deleting things that once seemed important, and now not so much, turning a page into a paragraph, a paragraph into a page. Or simply facing the harsh reality that what you’ve just written needs to be written again from scratch. 

In revising, we want to clarify not only what we have to say, but the limits of what can be said. We revise not only to fill in the gaps but also to shape more clearly the arcs or units of our writing and the spaces between them so that the prose is intelligible, so that what we have to share can in fact be shared.

     But beyond these emotions, lies a deeper question. We see that the best writing, then, aims to create in front of a reader the writer’s experience of thinking through a problem. It can be vivid, even gripping. Experienced writers do this through all sorts of tricks: shifts in tone and vocabulary, syntactic maneuvers and redirections of attention, quick moves from one subject to another, or settling in for something that takes pages of intense observation. When you’re reading good writing, you feel that you’re in the presence of a mind working something out, word by word, phrase by phrase by sentence by paragraph by page. Of course, not every writer has that skill, but it’s an ideal that committed writers include.

   And yet, every so often a writer drafts something that doesn’t work but that offers a glimpse of a new start, a new direction, or maybe even an entirely new and unanticipated project.

 Speaking of varied approaches, there are Patchers, who work a paragraph at a time or a section at a time. A patcher gets as much of an idea down as seems possible. A long paragraph, or maybe two pages of thoughtful text. That’s a patch of thinking. Then it’s on to the next patch. In the Renaissance, fresco painters worked patch by patch, preparing a dampened section of the wall and applying colors to that section. One day, an angel with a message; the next, a startled young woman reading a book. And so on until the fresco was complete. If you look carefully, you can do that.

     Then there are Polishers, on the other hand, write something — sentence, paragraph, page — and immediately go through it again. And again. Moving a clause, replacing a word, refining the shape of a sentence. Polishers are never quite satisfied. They can always see room for improvement.

 The distinction between writers who patch and writers who polish is only a small bit of writing theory. Real writers (you, for instance) do both. When you come to revise your text, though, it’s helpful to be able to tell yourself out loud what kind of a writer you are, what your processes are, and what your objectives are.

Oops, it is late and time for bed. Another oops, I did not revise this.