Sunday, June 06, 2010

On Revisions

In working on a poem, I love to revise. Lots of younger poets don't enjoy this, but in the process of revision I discover things. -- Rita Dove
It’s strange how one’s perspective on the writing process can change over time.

When I was setting out on this path, just entering the water, I viewed editing first drafts as a necessary but nightmarish chore.

I found it painful to face mistakes, uncover misspellings, and detect poorly constructed sentences. I’d feel demoralized whenever I came across paragraphs that made no sense, sentences that led readers in the opposite direction than the one I’d intended to point them in.

If you asked me why I found the process of editing my own work so frustrating, I’d tell you that it was because I found it intimidating to face my own failures. I viewed editing as a way to correct mistakes, my last chance to catch errors or delete passages that might mislead the reader or which would inevitably make me look foolish.

The editing process was nothing like the writing process, which I loved because it always led to unexpected discoveries and insights. Anything was possible as I set out on a first draft. How I loved the chance to dive into an empty page and fill it with words! I loved--and still love--finding out what I don’t know.

In comparison to the first draft stage, the editing stage seemed dull and stultifying, an exercise of the head, not the heart. With the words already on the page, I felt as if I had nothing left to discover, only the mistakes that I might have made when putting the words down on paper. Editing was simply the painstaking job of getting the words to appear as I thought they should appear on the page.

But the more time I spent writing, the more my understanding of the editing process changed. And it changed, I think, when I began to realize what I love most about the early stages of writing: the unexpected flash of insight, those moments of discovery, especially when the flow of ideas and words are rushing out of my pen so quickly (when it's going well) that I have a hard time keeping up with my thoughts.

Compared to that break-neck pace, editing has always seemed like writing-in-reverse or like trying to ride a bicycle downhill while squeezing the hand-brakes so you can never pick up speed. It was frustrating, especially when I wished I could go faster.

But then I asked myself if there truly is a distinction between writing early drafts and editing later drafts.

And this question led to the realization that it is all writing.

This perspective gives me the chance to see the entire process in a different way, a way that lets editing nourish my soul as much, if not more, than the first-draft stage of the process.

That’s because even in the end-stage process of editing I’ve learned how to let go of the “fixed” nature of a work, the way I think a work should go, and allow it to expand or shrink depending on what it needs in this particular moment.

Editing in this way, like writing, is much more in flux and less fixed, It's an ongoing process of listening and revelation, again and again, just as in the early drafts of a story when I have no idea what may come out of my pen or if the words will flow fast or slow or where they might lead me.

In the editing stage I find myself making discoveries, too, and each discovery takes me deeper into the words so that I don’t feel as if I’m reworking an “old” piece over and over in search of mistakes, but, rather, fleshing out a new piece, carving a new path, discovering a new way to approach an idea, a story, and exploring from different angles and perspectives.

When you edit with an open-minded attitude (an open-hearted attitude) toward your work, an attitude that suggests you are not correcting mistakes but rather looking for ways to deepen and expand a story that you love, you may find you are able to enjoy the process of editing in a new way, and to see your story from a new and unexpected angle.

For more on how to take pleasure in revisions, visit:

PS - Thanks to JM for inspiring this post with his insights into self-editing.


Andrea said...

Bruce, I love revising. It's like a challenge for me to make the book as perfect as possible. But I used to hate writing the first draft - it was the hardest thing for me. Now that I've developed my writing process through writing a few novels, though, my latest first draft is flying from my fingers. It's nice to see some progress in how we develop as writers.

Christine Mattice said...

Thank you for this great advice. Like you, I absolutely hate editing my work and now, thanks to your post, I think I know why.

Susan Woodring said...

Oh, is this post ever timely for me! I'm deep into a set of revisions/edits, and I love how you describe it: riding downhill, squeezing the brakes.

But of course, you're right: it's all writing. THank you for that reminder.

Suzanne H. Patton said...

I agree with this 100%. I stopped thinking about editing like a chore to clean up mistakes, and instead a process in which I make my writing better. Come on, what could be cooler? You start out with something worthy of a slush pile, and then you're able to make it better, every single time you come to look at it again.

Of course, that says nothing about a perfectionists obsession with it. ;-) Good thing I'm not a perfectionist!

Claire King said...

Excellent post. Thank you. Now someone tell me when to stop and submit...