The Wrong Way to Revise

Nobody likes to revise written work. No, not even we English teachers enjoy that process, even though we regularly go out of our way to teach the art of revision.

“The kids should learn how to do it,” we think to ourselves, year after year.”We don’t have to, of course, because we know better. But let the kids suffer through it–it’ll make them stronger!”

When I refer to revision, of course, I mean adding, removing, or drastically rewriting large portions of a written text. I’m not talking about final editing, which consists mostly of catching typos and changing a few words here and there. Revision is long, hard, brutal work; is it any wonder that all of us hate doing it?

Not all written work may need to be revised in the same way. Some rough drafts come out fairly polished already–especially when the writer puts a considerable amount of thought into the planning stage, and makes changes as he goes. Still, some works cry out for the extra attention that comes along with the revision process–and at times like those, tedious self-editing is not going to cut it.

Recently, a former student sought my opinion on a rough draft of a novel. She had the beginnings of a decent story idea, but her characters glided through every challenge and made it to the end of the book without seeming to learn anything.

“You can’t have a story in which your characters don’t grow and change,” I said. “You’ve got external conflict, but no internal conflict.”

“You’re right,” she admitted. “What can I do?”

“Go back to the beginning. Ask yourself what your character really wants. How does she feel about her life at the start of this story? What does she learn about herself in the end?”

“That’s great,” the young writer said. “I knew something major was missing here, but I wasn’t sure what. Now I can go back and really add to this thing.”

A month or so later, I found myself chatting with the former student again.

“My book is coming along really well,” she said. “I got twenty pages edited yesterday. Now, I’m on page fifty-three.”

“Oh, really?” I tried to be gentle. “And you’re happy with the changes so far?”

“Of course,” she said brightly. “I’m on page fifty-three!”

Every time I’ve seen this student since, she regales me with tales of her latest progress.

“Page seventy-five!” she’ll shout while gliding down the hallway. Or: “Page ninety-seven!” at the door of my classroom. “I’ll be done before you know it!”

As you may imagine, I’m not looking forward to reading a second draft of this novel. Call me cynical, but I can’t imagine that this young writer is making any real improvements. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe she keeps shouting page numbers at me because she thinks it makes her sound productive. But if she is truly just going page by page through the novel and making occasional arbitrary changes (“insert touching speech here”), she must not understand how to make the holistic changes her story really needs.

To revise a book, the author must make large, sweeping changes–the kind of changes that alter the very core of what the project was originally meant to be. The author must drastically rewrite certain scenes. Major plotlines may be tossed entirely–or new ones added. No character–major, supporting, or otherwise–is free from scrutiny.

Revising a work that already has a beginning, middle, and end is a very difficult thing for a writer to do. Perhaps we’re afraid to veer too far from our original creative vision. Perhaps we think we’d be moving backwards if we cut huge chunks from our story.

We’d be wrong. Moving backwards means producing a second draft that is more stilted and forced than the original–and all because we were afraid to really tear down the walls.

If you are completing a project that feels somehow “off,” think about revising–really revising. Rip that thing apart. Take a pair of scissors to it, if you need to.

No one ever really enjoys the revision process, but don’t lose hope. Whatever doesn’t kill your story will only make it stronger.

Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site has more examples of her work.


7 thoughts on “The Wrong Way to Revise

  1. Revision is definitely though, but I don’t think it’s right for you as an English teacher to be cynical about your student’s progress. Sure. One can allow himself to have doubts about his students’ work (I am a teacher also), but not having enough faith in them just seems a quick way to make them fail.

    In any event, I’ve learned over the last couple months that the strongest ally you can have during revision is, in fact, a person dedicated to your project, someone that’s actually there to help you. I’m not talking about sharing your drafts with friends or anything of the sort, but actually contacting a professional to tell you the things you’re missing and those you don’t want to see.

    1. Not every work needs to be ripped apart so thoroughly; I tried to make it clear that different works may have different needs (“Not all written work may need to be revised in the same way. Some rough drafts come out fairly polished already…”) In this article, I’m talking more to people who know revision is needed, but who lack the courage and/or no-how to get it done.

      As for not having faith in my students, I don’t believe I said that. For what it’s worth, this person I’m talking about is a former student, almost an adult, who came to me for extra assistance on a personal project. When I first sat down to talk with this person about her work, I felt we had a very good discussion and I had every confidence that she would make some real improvements in her writing. In the days since, though, when I heard how she’s chosen to approach revision, I was disappointed. If she’s going through and measuring her progress based on the numbers of pages she completes, rather than on the content itself, I think she’s missing the point of what I suggested she do. BTW, I of course agree that “contacting a professional to tell you things you’re missing and…don’t want to see” is an excellent way to revise and improve one’s writing. But for that to work, the writer must still be receptive to the advice and actually willing to make big changes–which is the entire point I’m really trying to make here.

  2. I measure progress on revision by how far into the story I’m getting in that process, but that doesn’t mean that huge chunks of it haven’t been torn up and re-worked. It could just be the temptation to have a tangible measure of progress that’s making your former student do this. I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t give up on your student just yet. Especially revision is often a multiple step process.

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