One of the most important lessons I learned about writing at Whitman was the art of revising. Yes, I just said the art of revising. This is because revising is not simply changing a few punctuation marks and spell-checking, but a thoughtful and daunting process of recreating.
The etymology of revise comes from the Latin word revisere, “look at again, visit again, look back on.” (OED) Thus, revision means to visit your work again from a fresh perspective, looking back on your work with a willingness to recreate.
There isn’t just one way to revise, just as there isn’t one way to write, but here are some ideas for revision that I found immensely helpful in breaking out of my cautious, grammar-editing mode to recreation mode! These strategies are loosely based on lessons from Professor Kisha Schlegel’s class Introduction to Creative Writing, as well as the book The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers.
- Save your original draft. “I love my original!” you might cry. “It feels wrong to change my first thoughts – like changing my first guess to another on a multiple-choice question. The first thought seems the most genuine.” And yes, I know how awful it feels tearing up a work that you have put a lot of effort and care into. But revising doesn’t mean your original work goes down the drain. Even phrases you take out or sections you cut could influence the other parts of your work, provide you with other ideas that serve useful. Saving your original draft lowers the guilt factor in revision, and ensures that you can always go back and see if there were any insights that you deleted, but want to put back in. But…
- Make bold choices. Some parts, you’ll know, deep down, just need to go. They can’t be fixed. They might be lovely and thoughtful in themselves, but they don’t serve their purpose in the context. If you have to cut it out, cut it out, even if it feels like you’re slowly and excruciatingly extracting a tooth from your jaw. Revising calls for bold, even radical changes, and sometimes these changes can be painful.
- Give yourself a restricted amount of time. Keeping yourself tense, knowing that you have to change something about your work within a limited time frame, can do wonders for your work. It helps you break out of your (justifiable) fondness for the original draft, and reluctance to make changes to a beloved piece. It forces you to resee and revise, quickly, boldly, and creatively.
- Rearrange your organization. In The Practice of Creative Writing, Sellers mentions a student who dramatically revised his short story by cutting it into paper strips, then moving the strips around until he found a sequence that pleased him. While you might not want to actually take out a pair of scissors and physically cut your essay up to ribbons, it’s useful to play around with the organization, see if a different order works better or if this phrase sounds better in another place.
- Draw the images in your piece. This might sound silly, but I actually found it the most helpful among all the revising techniques. It is especially useful in creative writing, but even for academic essays or analytical papers, drawing out what you want to say can give you an immediate glimpse into whether your argument has enough tension to be compelling, or offer a new direction that you can take your paper toward.
- Read for inspiration. There is nothing as freshly inspiring as skimming a few pages of your favorite book or the words of an expert on your topic. Okay, maybe a cup of strong tea…or a bar of chocolate…but reading other works conquers even these. They might provide a casual observation that could end up being your thesis, or fling a sparkling, startling stanza on which to build your own poem. Just make sure you give them credit if you take a bigger chunk of their ideas, because imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but only if it doesn’t degenerate to plagiarism!
Revising is a scary process, one that makes us hold our breaths and dig in our heels. But, once done, you will surprise yourself by how much your work can change. I’ve had eight-page essays transform into three-page poems, short stories swirl into novels, characters get offed and new ones spring to life. Good luck, and bon voyage in your pursuit of good writing!