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 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.