Making Our Writing Sing: The Revision Process
Writing takes time, talent, and persistence. Some would-be writers focus too much on a perceived lack of time, claiming they’d create great texts if they weren’t so busy with other things. Others admit to a talent deficiency, stating that “writer’s block” has barred them from going back to their keyboards. Yet successful writers know that persistence is the key to their craft. We all can agree that excuses won’t help us write our stories, but those who are disciplined know that committing words to paper is just the tip of the writing iceberg. While we need to prioritize the written word as the vehicle for our personal expression, we also must accept that great writing is the result of careful, persistent revision.
- Distance Yourself Between Drafts. We writers are understandably passionate about our work. So we need to walk away between drafts in order to create the detachment that will allow our inner critic to make adjustments. Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac told me, “When I have something like a finished poem, a substantial part of a story, or a chapter of a novel, I print it out, put it aside, and then read it the next day. That small amount of distance gives me enough perspective to be more objective as I read it and better able to see how it might be improved through revision” (personal communication, J. Bruchac, January 8, 2014).
- Check Your Ego. We writers have to be willing to modify or delete any line that doesn’t advance our cause, no matter how clever or funny it is. A good rule for personal critiques comes from the teacher and author Grace Paley, who said to “go back and look at every word and ask yourself if it’s true.” We need to ask ourselves if the dog we described as the cutest that ever lived truly is, or if the stars really danced when our characters fell in love. Chances are our cliché phrases, faulty metaphors, and awkward asides will become glaring, and we’ll be all too willing to replace them.
- Make Edits Individually. If we try to do too much at once we won’t give each component the attention it requires. One by one, we need to scour our work for grammatical errors, tense slips, theme lapses, the order of plot points, cuts we should consider, and additions we must make. We made the errors in isolation and so we should fix them individually.
- Seek Advice From Readers. National Book Award–winning author Robert Stone put it best when he said, “Revising is like cutting your own hair. While you may sense the need for improvement, it’s hard to get right what you can never entirely see yourself.” This need for feedback is why colleges have writing centers and authors form writers’ groups. Personally, I initially rely on my grammarian mother and persnickety brother to help me smooth the rough edges of my work. Next, my editor and I collaborate to ensure the piece achieved its goals, and then we send it to the journal’s copyeditor for a final polish. A minimum of five sets of eyes review my columns before they go to print, and without their collective efforts I’d be embarrassed to reread my published works.
- Confirm Your Theme. Before we submit our final drafts, we must take the time to check our work. After all of our drafts, edits, and revisions, we need to confirm that our work’s thesis remains encompassing, our title still fits, our quotes and citations are accurate, and our conclusion is satisfying. Every aspect of a piece contributes to our readers’ experience, and they deserve our best efforts.
- Let It Be. After we publish our works we need to let them stand on their own. All writers wish they could have a piece back to tinker with, but bestselling novelist Chuck Palahniuk’s practice is a better use of our time. At a reading I attended a few years ago, Palahniuk said he didn’t dwell on bad reviews because he was devoting all his efforts to creating his next novel.
Burroway, J. (2003). Writing Fiction. New York: Pearson Education.
Hart, R. (2008, August 27). Amy Hempel Interview. Retrieved January 2015 from: http://chuckpalahniuk.net/interviews/authors/amy-hempel-interview
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation, where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair. He gratefully acknowledges the conversations he had with Joseph Bruchac, LeAnne Howe, and Richard Van Camp in January 2014 which contributed to this essay.