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Being a Revisionist


"I love revision. Where else can spilled milk be turned into ice cream?"--Author Katherine Patterson


What does it mean? "Seeing again...."



What does it NOT mean? Editing. Editing is getting a story ready for the reader; revision is luxury of satisfying yourself. You should wallow in it.


Think of revision as an ongoing process that starts when you first think about how you will write a story to the point when you turn it over to an editor. Think of it as being nothing but a fun, positive process.


Revision is writing. This is you fashioning a sculpture in writing--molding, shaping, adding, subtracting... Think of yourself as a sculptor. The first draft is when you take a big chunk of clay and sort of mold it into a shape that looks roughly like a bust of a person. You have a rough idea that this glob of clay has a chin and a nose...but the eyes and lips are not apparent. You are writing a rough draft.



Writing Coach Don Murray, who has written a whole book on the topic of revision, says, " "Rewriting begins before you put the first word on paper and continues until you edit the final draft--which may, in turn, inspire revision."


When I was a reporter driving back to the newspaper after an assignment, I would run ideas through my mind of various versions for the "line" or the opening sentence or the closing sentence. Then when I got back to the paper I would pour it out as fast as my mind could recreate it, changing it as I went along, not worrying about spelling or capitalization or punctuation, just getting words on paper.


Then I would a walk to the water cooler.


When I returned to the typewriter (I'm dating myself), I would either tear up what I had done and start over with a totally new fast draft, or I would begin the revision process. The revision process. How does that work? First you give it a quick scan for obvious additions or deletions, still not worried about grammar or such fine points.


Then read it aloud to yourself. Now that sounds contradictory, but you should try it, and you will discover that you can actually hear the music of your writing. Sometimes it sounds pretty nice. Other times you choke on a discordant note.


After that, I would go through the piece from top to bottom, asking myself a variety of questions that soon became second nature:

  • Is it accurate? When in doubt, check it out. When I would ask my father how to spell a word, he would always respond the same way: "Look it up." The same is true with facts. Don't guess. Don't rely on someone else. Check it out.
  • Is it focused? By that I mean, is there a single theme throughout. If I have written a "line", is every sentence supportive of it. If not, it would be distracting to the reader and should be eliminated. At this point, try writing a title for the piece. Not a headline, but a title. You'd be surprised how that helps clarify the focus.
  • Is it too long or too short? Once I wrote a piece for an MIT publication based on an interview of more than an hour. I was told to keep it to 300 words. That's not much. Then I was told it would be the cover piece of this issue and therefore could only be 200 words long. My second piece was better than the first.
  • Is the story clear? An editor I once worked for used to say, "The readers you care about live in three deckers, not in the ivory tower at Harvard."
  • Are things in the right order? (Some people actually try writing an outline after they write their story.
  • Does it flow? Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist, says, "Don't put anything in a story that does not reveal the character or advance the action." The same is true for the kinds of stories you write for your publication.
  • Is there enough significant detail? Is there enough or too much description?
  • Is it the right "voice" for the story? You don't right an obituary with a flippant tone.


Is it me? Only you can answer that question, but after a while you will see that you have developed a style of writing, just as you have a style for carrying on conversations, whether you realize it or not.


Then there are two bigger questions?


Where is the tension in the story? The rain fell for 36 hours. So what? The rain fell for 36 hours and forced 300 people out of their homes in Helsinki.


Does the story contain any surprise(s). When you learn from the reporting process--or even the writing process--then what surprised you will most likely surprise the reader--or most of them anyway. "In 1956 Helsinki experienced its worst flooding. The Fire Department had to pump out 50 basements of homes. This week the Fire Department pumped out 250 basements. In '56, 10 roads had to be closed. This week 25 roads were closed to automobiles...etc."


Now that you have answered all these questions, you can go back and fix up your typing and the grammar and take out all the cliches and jargon!


Remember, revision is the fun part of writing. Or as Bernard Malamud used to say, "I love the flowers of afterthought."


Good writers spend lots of time at revision. Don't be fooled by how simple and clear some of their writing seems to be. Harvard economist/author John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote:


"In my own case there are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. However, when I'm greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed before, as I've often said, I put in that note of spontaneity which even my meanest critics concede."



So...You are now sculptors.