Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Truth About Revision

Although we may not acknowledge our first drafts as part of the revision process, each first draft is the beginning of a long process of searching for words to create our stories.

Where our words come from is one of the mysteries of writing. They may come out of the blankness of a sheet of paper, appearing as blurry letters that only become clear after we’ve written them down. Or they may come in a rush on a computer screen, flowing so quickly we can barely catch them as our fingers race over the keyboard. Or they may come as a faint tingling at the end of our fingertips, or the echo of a long-forgotten voice, or the thread of a barely audible whisper.

The first step of the writing—and revision—process involves facing that blankness and learning to listen. We have to learn that we are writing, whether or not the words come, as we wait patiently (or impatiently), hoping that the words will appear.

The next step involves letting the words emerge in the same way that distant objects—the shape of a distant tree, for instance, or the peak of a roof, or the round shadows of hills— appear gradually in the pre-dawn mist as the light increases until we can distinguish shapes and shadows from each other.

Once we put the words down—whether we have to chase after them and frantically copy them down before they disappear or we manage to catch them as the words surge through us—we may find ourselves tempted to leave them alone.

The words, after all, make their way onto the page in a particular order (an order that’s as mysterious as the process of finding the words) and which we may want to accept because, as conduits for the words, that’s how we receive them. Writing is hard work, after all, and it’s tempting to say our work is finished once we’ve caught the words on paper and can watch them glisten like fish caught in a net.

But that’s when we must bring our intellectual and emotional resources into play. With the words on paper, we can review what we’ve written as if we are reading the words for the first time. We can be the reader and the writer, simultaneously. When we can read the words and observe how they make us feel as we read them, we can begin to understand if they move us, draw us into the scene, the character, the emotion of the moment. If not, we need to see what’s missing, what's in our mind but not yet on the page

And then we need to muster the determination and dedication to bring into focus the details that will bring the scene to life, infuse the characters with emotions that resonate in the reader, and give the reader the chance to envision the scene and experience it as if he or she is immersed in it.

As writers, we repeat this process as many times as necessary until the scene, the story, the characters, the plot feels complete, and we can see no other missing pieces.

And that’s when the rewriting begins yet again.

That’s when it’s time to send our work to our editor or share it with our friends or our critique group. That’s when it’s time to listen to the feedback of outside readers who can see things that we can't see because of our closeness to the work.

Their feedback will help us see not only what we’ve done and what we’re trying to do, but what we still need to accomplish. Here’s where you are now, they’ll suggest, and here’s the target

Then it’s our job to reduce the distance, to shrink the gap between the two as closely as possible, before we can say we’re done.

For more on the revision process, visit:

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