On Writing: Revision is Good for the Soul




“This morning I took the hyphen out of Hell-bound and this afternoon I put it back.”

                                   –Edwin Arlington Robinson



You have to get the words right. EASY? HARD.   Right?

In order to get the words right, revision must become an integral part of your writing process. Experienced writers understand that writing is not all luck and talent. The turning of early drafts into worthy works requires a certain power. The power that lifts those early drafts off your desk and raises them into published poems or best-selling books is …you guessed it…revision.

I love the definition of revision that was given to me by a writer I admire. I’m sure he got it from another successful writer. He told me that revision is re-seeing. It’s taking a new look at your work and trying to see it a different way. It’s seeing the problems and solving them. It’s taking a good page of prose or a stanza (for poets) and seeing it better. Do you want to start with that first paragraph or do you want to start with the third paragraph instead. The first paragraph is well written, but is it necessary? Maybe it was good for the scaffolding of the piece, but can it be torn down now because the real structure begins with the third paragraph? You needed the scaffold in order to build. Just like the scaffolding you see around houses or buildings. When the house is ready to be sold, the scaffolding is torn down. The scaffolding of your writing was necessary, but go ahead and tear it down to make the writing a finished product.

I find it hard to eliminate words or paragraphs or even whole parts of my writing.  I’m primarily a poet. When I ask someone to give me constructive feedback of a poem I’ve written, I cringe when they suggest that I really don’t need that first stanza or that extra word in the second stanza. I don’t think  writers really enjoy getting suggestions of change, but we know critique is critical. You take the feedback with you back to the revision table and weigh it by re-seeing your writing as you use the feedback. Does it help or not? It’s the writer who, after trying out the feedback, decides…not that fabulous person who was so kind to read your work and give you suggestions. It is always great when you can find someone you trust who is willing to read and give suggestions and I always thank them. Most of the time I see that they were right, thus making my poem more powerful or more lyrical or clearer than it was.

It’s okay to revise as you write. Unless…you’re freewriting first. Freewriting is for jotting down all your thoughts and words without stopping to revise. I free-write using pen and paper, not the computer. I will post about freewriting another time, but just briefly this: My bachelor’s degree and teaching certification is in Special Education. Many of my students have learning disabilities. I was trained in the left brain/right brain functions. I learned a technique that calls for a student using the right hand (of left, depending) to stand before the chalkboard or white board and write circles, then letters by taking the chalk (marker) reaching from left to right or vice versa. The point of this is that something in the motion of writing using your hand and arm causes stronger, more creative writing to occur. It acts on the language portion of your brain and strengthens it. So when I free-write using pen and paper, I am somehow subconsciously strengthening language and creativity. I will revise or write my first draft on the computer.

Lots of writers think awhile before they start. This is where revision occurs before words are written. By thinking, the writer is trying out lines and paragraphs in their heads. They think while they lift weights, wash the dishes, read books or talk to friends. They gain and throw-out ideas and structure before they even write one word. This is the also a part of the revision process. I do this, but I also do it after I have written a first draft. I wait for a few days or even a week by putting aside my draft. I continue to revise in my head while doing daily chores. Sometimes something wonderful in the way of language comes while I’m making my bed!

“I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first draft. But I’m one of world’s great rewriters.”      -James Michener

How many times does one revise? I know writers who revise at least 15-20 times before they are satisfied. I don’t have the patience, but I’m working on it.  If you have a beauty of a first draft, maybe you don’t need to make a lot or any revisions. But you need to at least re-see your work. It’s also best to find someone you can trust to read and give feedback. Perhaps it’s not going to be a family member. Sometimes family will look at what you’ve done, and love it every time because they love you. If you know a writer you respect and admire, maybe you can partner up and read each other’s work. A writing group is a great way to become a member of a writing community weekly or monthly. You will learn to know who in your group will give valuable critique and to filter out.

“There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I’m greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed.”     -John Kenneth Galbraith

Hemingway: I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms 39. The last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had you stumped?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

Yes, it’s that simple, yet, that hard.

Following are some things to consider when revising a piece.(adapted from Writing True  by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz)

*Adjust the Voice: Read your piece aloud to detect an inconsistent or unconvincing voice.
*Face the dragon: Is there a dragon, a conflict, a critical revelation, that you’re avoiding Do you skirt around the central issue instead of facing it?Have you tacked on a happy ending rather than clos with a truer sense of ambivalence or argument
Sharpen the focus: Does your piece have a central focus, or does it split into fragments. What is the is piece really about?
*Tune your language: look for clichés and truisms and reach for fresh, originals ways of saying what you mean.
*Write for your toughest reader: Imagine a reader who is discerning but fair, curious and rigorous. (I have been told that when you think of whom your audience will be imagine that they are a least as intelligent you are—this from me, not the authors above.)
*Copy-Edit with care: use spell check or have someone proofread. Pay attention to subject/verb agreement, correct punctuation. This line-by –line editing should come after more substantial revision is finished. 

Advise to writers from George Orwell (From Politics and the English Language)

*Never use a metaphor, simile. or other figurative of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

*Never use a long word where a short one will suffice.

*If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.

*Never us a passive where you can use the active.

* Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

*Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

*Never use a metaphor, simile. or other figurative of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

*Never use a long word where a short one will suffice.

*If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.

*Never us a passive where you can use the active.

* Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

*Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Finally, learn to enjoy the revision process. Writing is a process. There is much research among scholars on exactly how we process our writing. Learn what works best for you, what gives you the most satisfaction while writing and leaves with a “knowing” that you have created, in fact, MADE something creative. Writing is a made thing, just like a painting is made by an artist,  pottery is made by a potter or a house is built by a contractor. It never “just happens”, does it? Well, it doesn’t for me. We discover tools to use when we make our writing. Best of all, we discover ourselves through our writing.








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