Friday, October 23, 2015

Revision: The 95%

As the semester progresses, I’ve been teaching my students about revision. I regret not having “taught” it sooner; the more I write, the more I realize that this lesson needs to happen day one of any writing class.

For many new writers (myself included), it is enticing to write something, re-read it a few times, rearrange some words, and jump straight into editing: grammar mistakes, punctuation, formatting. Unfortunately, this does not guarantee good writing. In fact, it will most likely produce the opposite.

The word “revision” means to “see again.” This means going back to the drawing board and re-envisioning a story or essay. In the process, the writer learns more and more about the characters or essay topic. Our writing ancestors had it write when they used the word “essaie,” or efforts, to describe what we do.

William Stafford says it best:

“I do revise in the sense that I do go back over what I write, but it doesn’t look like a different process. It’s just the same process, going back through the same terrain again… seeing if the signals are different. And every now and then, you may get a little nudge of a new idea, or adjustment.”

To illustrate what I mean to my students, I use the example of paintings. Most painters will study their subject extensively, sketching the dancers or the sailboats that they want to portray on the canvas. From these sketches, they learn about their subjects, understanding the way a dancer’s feet move in a pas de bourrée, or how a boat sits on the water under full sail. 

The sketches inform the painter's drawings, and they begin to have a deeper sense of what they want to depict in their paintings. After much trial and error, the painter is ready to sit at his easel and bring the paintbrush to the canvas. When we look at the final painting, we see hints of those first sketches; but we can also see that the painter has come a long way in their process.

Now imagine if a painter made a sketch and decided it was good enough to start applying oil paints to it right away. What would it look like? A masterpiece? Not likely.

That is what a writer is doing when they try to edit their first drafts. It’s like putting icing on top of cake batter; the cake is not ready to be iced yet until it has gone through the fire and then cooled.
Proofreading, or editing, means to polish up what is already written. In case you needed another analogy, this is putting the shingles on the roof of the house. Unfortunately, we cannot put shingles on a house if the foundation isn’t strong, or if the walls haven’t been built yet.

My thesis advisor is pushing me to birth the first draft of my novel as quickly as possible.
“It’s going to be a disaster,” he says. “And that’s okay. Because then at least you’ll have something to work with.”

He knows the secret – 95% of writing is revision.

“After I write this draft, I’m just going to set it aside and start over, aren’t I?”
“Yep,” he says, smiling. “And over and over and over again.”

The blank page is a scary place, but I am trying to acquaint myself with the idea of returning to the drawing board again and again. I find solace in knowing that I won’t be returning empty-handed. With each new draft, I’ll be armed with the wisdom and lessons of each one that came before it. 


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