To be a writer, you need to love the writing process. It’s a process of ongoing discovery, the discovery of the wisdom your work wants to convey. If you already know everything that’s going to be in your work, that work is going to be D.O.A. As Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press says, “If you don’t discover anything while you’re writing your work, the reader isn’t going to discover anything from reading it.” It’s an archeological process; you can’t discover that wisdom all at once; we discover it layer by layer. This is why revision is your friend.
It’s the job of a first draft to be insufficient. Sometimes an emerging writer may feel like it’s a rebuke to be asked to revise a work, as if they have somehow failed. Writing is the only art form in which there’s the expectation that you’ll get it right the first time—musicians know they have to practice constantly; actors rehearse; painters paint over their canvasses; dancers spend grueling hours each day performing the same positions.
When your first draft is insufficient your haven’t failed; you’ve succeeded in completing a first draft. When we’re lucky, the first draft maps the general territory the work wants to explore. But there’s a lot we still don’t know at the end of the first draft. Now the real work begins.
Revision is not editing. Re-vision literally means to see again, perhaps to see anew.
Sometimes you have an idea of what you’re trying to say; revision gives you the opportunity to measure what you’ve said against what you meant. In the process of revision, you may also become aware of additional perspectives, additional angles, additional layers that you couldn’t have seen before that first articulation.
Or maybe you have no idea what you are trying to say. Revision gives you the opportunity to discover the meaning or meanings in what you have written (another word for this is themes), and then to craft the work to deepen those meanings.
Revision isn’t a one-step process. It’s not just “first draft/revise/done.” A piece may get “worse”—more disorganized, more self-conscious—in a second draft, but that’s not your last chance. Writing offers endless opportunities for redemption. A piece may undergo several revisions, until you’ve discovered as much of that wisdom as you can. The poet Mary Oliver reports that she revises a poem 50-75 times before she is satisfied. Don’t be in a hurry to be done; again, love the process.
As you approach revision, don’t have it in your mind that you are trying to “fix” something (revision is NOT editing). Approach revision with the goal of seeing more, learning more, understanding more, adding power, adding depth, adding risk, adding artfulness. Don’t worry about making it “good”—make it real, make it true, make it meaningful, make it, as Jane Hirshfield suggests, more strange.
How to approach revision if you’re working on your own:
- Put away your first draft for a while. Give yourself time to gain some distance, and thus, perspective. How long a time depends on how quickly you can come to see it as a thing in its own right, disconnected from your ego, your ambitions, your intentions.
- Interrogate the work and interrogate yourself as its maker. Here are some questions to ask:
• What meanings have you made? Are these what you intended?
• Have you made it possible for a reader who does not know you to understand these meanings?
• Have you made it likely that a reader who does not know you will care about what you have said?
• What do you want a reader to take away from the work?
• What have you risked? Have you risked enough? Are you shrinking from some risk in the piece?
• What have you discovered? Is there more to discover?
• What of your own questions remain unanswered? What needs to happen for you to answer them?
• What are the missed opportunities?
- Assess the craft elements in the piece:
• Does the plot reveal the significance of the events that take place?
• Are the characters believable, dimensional, unique?
• Is the world of the story—the time and place—rendered so that the reader can enter the experience and know where they are?
• Does the structure support the reader’s journey through the piece?
• What are your themes and do you understand the hierarchy of them?
• What is the voice of the piece and how does that support its meaning?
• Are your images specific, concrete, sensory and fresh?
• Does the language/diction help to deliver the world of the piece to the reader?
• What is the music of the piece—pacing, rhythms, language?
- Make a plan for what you will tackle in the next revision. Don’t try to accomplish everything you think needs to be done. Choose one or two things to focus on; choose the most important things to tackle first.
- Save your previous draft and then let nothing be sacred as you approach the revision. Risk, experiment, be bold in trying things out. If you make a wrong turn, you can always go back to the previous draft. Let each draft be as playful, as rich with discovery as your first.
Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada
Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.