Rethinking Revision

Revision, for me, is a tedious, exhausting chore. I’ve been revising a novel for the past five months, and I hate every waking moment of it. I have to warm myself up just to get started. Most of the time this involves copious amounts of coffee, browsing various websites (like Arts & Letters Daily or r/literature), or doing a little writing on less intense projects (such as my blog). After my synapses are firing faster, I can finally dive into the behemoth-sized task at hand. I usually begin reading over the revisions from the previous day to reacquaint myself with the material, then move on to the untouched stuff.

Thinking back to my high school creative writing classes, we often utilized the draft method. Usually, the first draft was typed up quickly with few edits. I’d hand it in, then get it back with suggested changes. Thus would start the second draft, and the process would repeat, until I could successfully hand in a final draft. The draft method of writing seems more convenient as a method of teaching rather than something one must utilize to improve their writing. Imagine telling beginning writers that writing is a process of revision rather than sets of successive drafts. How would an instructor grade that? And how would students know when they were “finished”?

I was often told simple truths, such as don’t start a sentence with “and” or “but” or show, don’t tell or use a word other than “said”. But these rules are nothing more than a good base to build on. It’s like a professor used to tell me: “Knowing the rules means you know how to break the rules.” If you read Cormac McCarthy you’ll soon notice that he breaks convention like a teenager breaks curfew. He uses and like it’s going of style, uses no quotes to set off dialogue, and loathes any punctuation more complicated than commas and periods.

Breaking punctuation or usage conventions comes easily enough, but revision is an insufferable beast. I try to view writing as a never-ending process of revision. There are no drafts. There is just the piece you’re working on and either it’s close to being “readable” or it isn’t. But in practice, I have much trouble letting go of traditional conceptualizations of drafts. Right now my novel is in revision. It’s not being rewritten, it’s just being improved. Every time I begin revising, I start thinking in terms of being on a third draft of whether I’m close to a final draft. Then I begin feeling overwhelmed with how many chapters I have left and how many times I’ll have to revise them.

That’s why revision is the splinter that sits there aching until eventually I just buck up and dig it out. It doesn’t feel like active creation. To me it’s all just evolution. It’s taking simple words and making them better, but it’s not nearly as exciting as starting with an empty page and filling it up with something that’s a part of you.

Most of my thoughts on revision come from the great book, The Craft of Revision by Donald Murray. Since I live in Korea and the majority of my possessions are on the opposite side of the world, I can’t give you any choice quotes, but if you’re looking to improve your writing, and especially have trouble with revision, definitely check it out. It caused me to constantly try to look at revision as the writing process itself, that each piece you work on is, in a sense, living. Revision doesn’t have to be done when you finish a piece, but can by done while you’re still working on it. Imagine finishing a three hundred page novel, but holding out revision until the very end. Any small changes you make could affect the entire piece and you’ll have to go back and rework the entire novel just to make sure it fits. (Trust me, it’s no fun.) But if you rethink revision and it becomes something actively done throughout the duration of a piece, then when you do have a “readable” copy, hopefully, you’ll have much less of a beast to overcome.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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5 thoughts on “Rethinking Revision

  1. I always revise (polish) as I go. It’s an automatic reflex with me. I think I am lucky. I actually enjoy the process. Years ago I had a piece of furniture made. I had wanted it laquered. The cabinet maker, an Italian man who had been trained in the old country, told me he understood what I was after but that laquer wasn’t necessary. When he delivered the piece it was magnificent. I asked him how he was able to get the sheen without laquer. He explained how he sanded and polished and sanded and polished (by hand) over and over and over and over again, bringing out all the natural beauty of the wood — which laquer would have hidden. It was a long and laborious task but he told me that, for him, it was a labour of love. He is passionate about wood and every piece he works with has a different characteristic he brings out. The look of contentment and joy on his face as he talked to me actually said it all. That’s what I think of as I refine my work. I get as much pleasure out of the crafting as I do out of the creating.

      • Thanks! He was a woodworker. I’m a wordworker, I guess. Funny ending to that story. I had that piece of furniture for a really long time. My taste evolved and I decided to sell it at auction. About a year later, I was in a boutique. Suddenly I saw it. The owner of the store was the one who bought it at the auction. He used it to showcase all kinds of accessories. I told him that I was the original owner and that piece of furniture took on a whole new meaning for both of us. An interesting twist, no?

      • Sorry, I hit ‘send’ too soon. It was a beautiful piece, but what made it so much more special was his story; and watching him lovingly caress the wood as he explained his love of wood and how much he loved bringing its beauty to life. He fondled it the way a man caresses a woman. In the disposable, immediate gratification world we live in now there’s no appreciation of craftsmen like him. It’s a shame.

  2. @Steven – I’d be careful about avoiding the use of the word “said” too much; it leads to sentences like ” ‘Wow,’ he ejaculated” and ” ‘Shhh!’ she hissed.” The word “said” is one that disappears when you see it a lot on the page, and overuse is not a problem until one approaches truly epic levels of use of the said “said” word being said by characters saying it and narrators using “said” to say what they’re saying.

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