Revision: Exquisite Pleasure?

So you managed to get all those words onto your page — Your masterpiece. The story poured as freely and as powerfully from your imagination as water over Niagara Falls, each syllable electric! Your work is finally done.

Well… actually… it’s not.

Many writers, especially beginning writers, believe that getting their story or poem onto a page is what writing is all about. The reality is that this is only the beginning. Sure, they squeezed their story out of their heads and into written form, but all they’ve really done is to allow their fingers to act as stenographers for their brain. The brain told them what to write and they wrote it. They created their first draft.

The initial version of a piece of writing is called the “first draft,” the first of what will likely be several drafts – perhaps three, four or scores of drafts. Subsequent drafts are derived through the process called revision.

Why revise?

Ernest Hemingway put it this way: “The first draft of anything creative is shit.”

While that first draft is an important, crucial part of the process, it is far from the polished manuscript or page it needs to be for publication or even for casual public display.

Hemingway’s observation doesn’t mean that all first drafts are lousy stories or rotten poems (although they could be); he simply meant that our initial offerings will be flawed, probably badly flawed both grammatically and as far as the overall story or poem goes.

First drafts by even the most skilled writers contain numerous spelling, punctuation and general structural errors. These structural errors might include such flaws as incomplete sentences, run-on sentences or paragraphs that start and end badly. All of these elements are easily addressed through careful editing; however, these grammatical repairs are only a small part of the overall revision process. The greatest challenge lies in revising the story itself.

Why not just be extra careful to avoid these mistakes during the initial writing?

Another bit of wry writing wisdom whose origins no one seems to know addresses this question: “Allow yourself to write shit.”

This does not mean that we should sit down and intentionally write garbage; it means we should give ourselves permission to write freely. Allow yourself to shut off that internal self-editor and let your story flow onto the page.

But isn’t that sloppy?

Yes it is sloppy. It’s an absolute mess in most cases. That’s why first drafts are called first drafts.

Author Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith said this about writing: “There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

If you’re going to open veins onto white pages it’s bound to get ugly. While it’s easy to spill the words onto those pages, it’ll take work – lots of work – to clean up the mess.

When we free ourselves to write crap we’re telling ourselves that it is more important to get our ideas onto pages than it is to focus (for now) on the mechanics of writing: Spelling, punctuation, sentence structure. These can be addressed during revision. If you allow your internal self-editor to wrestle over every comma, misspelled word and sentence structure while you’re composing that first draft, that draft may appear more refined but it will likely lack the energy and story elements that it might have had if it were allowed to flow freely. Better to get what’s in your head onto the page as freely as possible and fix any mistakes later. After all, without your creative idea there I no story; there is no poem.

What’s the difference between editing and revising?

Although there may be overlap between these two distinctly different processes, they break down something like this.

Editing is generally thought of as the process that addresses fundamental issues of spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence and paragraph structure, as well as issues regarding going over the word length set in a publisher’s guidelines. Back in the good old days when editors actually edited, these are the issues they were paid to either fix or point out to their authors.

Revision, on the other hand, generally involves rearranging, cutting and adding words so that the story itself is revealed in a more coherent and polished manner than we are able to produce in rough, early drafts. Anything that doesn’t further the story or enhance the imagery in a poem is cut out.

Can you revise while editing? Sure! Can you edit while revising? Absolutely! – The reality is that the two terms have become almost interchangeable these days, but strictly speaking, what we writers do before submitting work to the outside world is most often called revision.

Okay, so where does one start the revision process?

There are as many methods of revision as there are authors. Some begin by correcting spelling and grammar issues; some go straight for strengthening the story itself. Even within just these two directions there are those who allow software to attack their spelling and grammar issues, while others hack through them manually; there are those who strengthen their story one paragraph at a time, while others take the work as a whole and keep adding new material for a while. Which process you adopt will come with practice.

As I mentioned earlier, addressing structural flaws like spelling and punctuation is a relatively simple process. If you’re using a computer word processor, you can allow spell-check to run and  switch on the grammar guide; these will spotlight most problem areas in your initial stage. After that you must read each line carefully to uncover any words the software missed, like “too” where you meant “two,” “there” where you meant “their.” It’s a laborious though simple process.

If you’ve fixed your spelling, grammar and your sentences are complete, what else is there to do?

To answer that, let’s look at a few more quotations that speak to revision:

“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” ~ Truman Capote

“I can’t write five words but that I change seven.” ~ Dorothy Parker

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~ Anton Chekhov

When Capote speaks of “scissors” he’s talking about cutting out anything that doesn’t belong in the story – every unnecessary scene, every superfluous word, every phrasing that drags out a sentence. That even goes for words, phrases, sentences or paragraphs that you consider incredibly witty but that don’t in some way add strength and depth to your story. William Faulkner referred to this latter point with the phrase: “Kill your darlings,” darlings being those seemingly indispensable elements.

Dorothy Parker and Chekhov touch on another element of revision; that’s the process of taking individual words, sentences and paragraphs and cutting as much dead weight as possible while filling in spaces with more vivid, active, tangible prose. Here’s where we change things like “He went to the store” to “Ted skateboarded to the butcher shop,” or “Mary wore a shiny barrette” to “Mary wove her auburn hair into pigtails, each adorned with the jeweled butterfly barrettes her mother had left her.” We revise stagnant, nondescript elements into images that help readers to better experience our story, sometimes cutting things shorter, sometimes adding elements, always with a keen eye to enhancing the story.

How do you decide what to change?

Determining what needs to be changed is perhaps the most difficult part of the revision process. With so many words on so many pages, the task often seems impossible. In fact, many writers never get beyond the first draft and therefore never publish precisely because they fear this aspect of revision. But the only way to get it done is to begin.

Let’s take a look at three readily available means for discovering what needs to be changed.

Read your manuscript over several times. Read once or twice just to familiarize yourself with the flow of your first draft.  Follow that with more reading, this time with pen in hand to mark up the pages where things need to be changed. Should a new paragraph begin here? Mark it. Is that image weak? Circle it and make a note about why it was circled, along with any initial ideas for change. It’s a painstaking process, but an absolutely necessary one. And you’ll do it all over again after you’ve completed your second or even third draft.

Another method is to read your pages aloud to yourself, perhaps armed with a hand-held voice recorder that will allow you to later hear yourself read and that can capture any suggestions that might come to mind as you read. Once again, it’s a painstaking process that will require that you not only read your entire story aloud but listen to it again later. But reading aloud does something that reading silently does not. When you read aloud, flawed sentences, words or phrasing becomes instantly evident in that it will cause your reading to pause or stall altogether. Your mind tries to wrap itself around lines that don’t make sense, words that don’t seem to fit. Reading aloud to yourself often finds mistakes that may not be made apparent any other way.

Finally, if you have a willing friend, you can ask them if they’d mind reading your story aloud to you. Armed with a spare copy, you mark spots on the page that seemed to cause problems for the reader. It’s also helpful to introduce a voice recorder so you can listen to it later, but keep the recorder out of view so your reader doesn’t become self-conscious.

Although these three methods work well, there is no substitute for a good editor – I mean a real editor who will not simply say “This sucks” or “This is great,” one who will work with you to point out flaws and suggest alternatives. If you have a friend who happens to be a writer, you can ask them to assist. But make sure your friend knows what kind(s) of help your looking for. It’s important that they know how in-depth or how general you wish their input to be. Where you might simply wish to know if the story made sense or had any major flaws, they may dive in deep and unearth every structural flaw, every out-of-place punctuation mark, every incomplete sentence and even every missed chance at alliteration.

If you don’t have a willing writer friend to help, you may need to shell out hard cash for a professional editor to help refine your work. (How to find an editor goes beyond the scope of this piece) That’s one reason it is crucial that you learn how to do as much revision work yourself. If you believe that you can simply mail your first draft off to a publisher and their editor will fix your mistakes for you, you’re in for one heck of a disappointment. Not only will they not perform your editing for you, they’ll likely not read beyond your first flawed page. Today’s publishers want as close to finished work as possible.

Whatever process you choose for revising your work, revision is a necessary evil of writing for publication. There is no escaping it. However, the more you do it the easier it will become over time; in fact, it can even be a pleasurable experience.

Author Bernard Malamud put it this way in his book, “Long Work, Short Life”:  “First drafts are for learning what one’s fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”

© Bill Weiss, Writersblog – 2011

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About Bill Weiss

Bill Weiss is a creative and freelance writer and founder of the Writerspark creative writing group.
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