The Energy of Revision

I suspect that my friends in the local writers group cringe every time they hear me say the word ‘revision’ or ‘editing.’ I’m constantly sharing my perspective as well as articles, tips, and quotes on the process of revision.  I’ve become a big fan since I decided that perpetual procrastination (which allows for minimal reflection) was not producing a quality of work that I desired. It’s taken about 30 years to reach this point.

In high school, revising was not promoted. You did the work; maybe did a little editing for grammar and spelling and then submitted the project. It was graded and the process was over.  In college, the process was expanded somewhat, but it really wasn’t until I was working on my senior project to complete my BA about three years ago that I really understood the significance of revision.

Everyone loves the creative process especially when it’s a day that words are just flowing from your fingers to the page. It’s new and exciting. It’s the first time those words – the feelings, the colors, the smells  – are in a tangible form that can be shared with others. It’s a cathartic experience full of ups and downs, new adventures, and discoveries about our characters and ourselves as writers.

Revision, by comparison, sounds like drudgery.  Correcting verb tenses, tightening up sentences, deleting unnecessary modifiers, and perhaps deleting a finely crafted section of our masterpiece. It’s this possibility that makes the revision process seem so heinous – suggesting perhaps in a perfect moment of spontaneous creativity that a sentence or a paragraph or a scene, even, may have been created only to be thrown into a void.  Could something that is written in this perfect state not be necessary to further the story?

For that senior project, I spent a year writing and revising the first 100 pages of a novel. I learned that the revision process has an exciting energy of its own. It’s quite different from the energy of creation, but equally is creative and just as important. It’s not just about grammar and spelling or verb tenses. Revision is a stage of listening, gauging, questioning, and evaluating.  Instead of being in my character’s shoes, I’m now walking by her side making sure she’s following the path that is truest to her nature. I’m listening to her voice to be sure that it’s genuine to her personality and observing her actions for authenticity. It’s like falling in love again with your story from a mentor’s point of view instead of a participant’s.

And I learned through 365 days with these words, that even if there is such a thing as the perfect sentence – there will always be others and that holding onto an awesome sentence when it doesn’t further the story is pretty silly. I highlight and delete at will now. I don’t even copy and paste the words to a separate file anymore. There will be other words; other sentences.

Revision is about breaking free from the fear that you’ve already put down all the good words you have about a story.  Revision allows us to stop and reflect, observe, and commune with our characters and themes. It’s the time to make that fine detail even finer; the voice even stronger; the ideas richer. A time to develop as a writer.

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  1. #1 by Barbara Kellam-Scott on May 11, 2010 - 12:16 pm

    Carol, rest assured this Sussex Bard, at least, does no cringing at those words; they are why I want writing groups (and actually friends of all kinds) who will tell me what I need to hear. Not to mention that I cut some teeth in corporate ghostwriting in a highly regulated industry. If you couldn’t deal with the techies, and the lawyers, and the regulatory experts, and the executives, and all those who just thought because they knew how to type they were writers, …

    I talk about this issue a lot in the context of overcoming racism: I know I’ll never not be racist. The best I can hope, and in some contexts have achieved, is earning enough trust from those of other racial/ethnic groups that they’ll tell me when I’ve been stupid.

    You’re right, though, that there are somewhat deeper pitfalls in fiction writing. I appreciate the way you take them on.

  2. #2 by DoAn (Antony) on May 13, 2010 - 8:40 am

    I love the revision stage of writing. I often think of the writing process in similar terms to the process of conceiving and raising a child. The conception stage is exciting, full of fantasy of the future of the piece, thoughts run wild. Then comes the gestation where you prepare for the piece to come, research, plotting or thinking about the details dominates this time. Then comes the labor as the draft is forced out. It is difficult, draining, often messy, even painful. Then the nurturing stage comes where revisions start to come in. This stage is a balance of gentle coaxing to strict restriction. Things get cut out, other things come in. The revision stage is about helping the piece be its own thing and the best that it can be. Eventually, the revision stage is done and the piece is let go to stand on its own.

    • #3 by Carolyn Raynis on May 19, 2010 - 6:04 pm

      Pardon me for the delay in responding – still learning how to use the whole wordpress site. I am definitely becoming fond of the revision stage. Your description of it as a birthing process is apt!

  3. #4 by donna o on May 15, 2010 - 4:08 pm

    I have to agree–revision is something I really enjoy doing. All the fine tuning and tweaking. To be honest, one thing I really love about revising things I write is that in the end I often end up condensing my thoughts! I am wordy by nature :0) and to write something, then step back and rethink it nearly always results in something “better”. The ties I write and click save or send…let’s just say I have done enough apologizing in my day!

    • #5 by Carolyn Raynis on May 18, 2010 - 4:32 pm

      That’s the part that so cool. Considering how to make your thoughts more concise. It’s like sanding down a sculpture or a woodworking piece. It’s got a rhythm and purpose of it’s own.

  4. #6 by michaelwatsonvt on May 23, 2010 - 8:51 pm

    I spend about two-three times as much time revising as writing I think. I’d rather not. While I enjoy editing and revising, I also just want the piece finished.

    Oddly, I am very demanding of students when I think there should be revisions. I know rewrites are crucial, and provide both clarity and opportunities for learning. The odd bit is that while I know I would really prefer not to spend so much time on revisions, I expect students to spend as much time as it takes…..

    I was not encouraged to rewrite in college, an oversight that stunted me as a writer for a long time. I also assumed that as I was not being given encouragement to rewrite, I was not writing well enough to bother with. Now, when I receive a paper that works well, I say so, and often offer ideas about revisions, although I do not ask for the revisions.

    Anyway, given the challenges of writing well, I do not know how folks manage to post to their blogs daily, or even three times per week.

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