What I Learned about Revision

I’ve been reading a lot about the revision process this past week. I was particularly taken with a list created by Madeline Sharples.  In her list one particular point stood out.  In fact, I can’t get it out of my mind.

She says “Don’t edit as you write.  Write, wait a while, then edit.”  I thought that for a full-length book she couldn’t possibly mean write one scene or one chapter and set it aside, then revise, then write the next scene or chapter.  That must mean write the whole durn book, then wait a while and then edit.  Wow, why didn’t anybody tell me this before?

For the first couple of years, it’s true that I needed to keep revising because I had to find my story and how to start it.  I thought I had my story—it was about how I grew up with a father who was in some ways wonderful and in other ways a terror.  But it wasn’t until I wrestled with getting my memories down on paper that I learned I had to have a very specific string to hang these beads on.

Well, that’s been accomplished for a year now, and I am still revising by scene and by chapter and listening to a lot of advice from my wonderful and smart readers. But it’s time I take Sharples’ advice and just write the book already.

Then I can set it aside to breathe and start my next book about my goofy husband or maybe my cats.  Maybe finish my play, my young adult novel, or my poetry manuscript.

When I’m ready I can revise the entire book.  Good thing I planned for a ten year process.

Now there’s one caveat to this advice. If you’re a writer like Dylan Thomas , you can skip the advice altogether. He wrote two lines of poetry, revised, and then kept going.  He didn’t go back and revise the whole poem. That’s a writer with the final product in his head from the beginning. I can’t even imagine having that ability.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Poetry, Research and prep for writing

12 responses to “What I Learned about Revision

  1. I like to write on the computer and moosh things around as I write. I think of the mooshing as molding clay and also as translating my ideas into something others can understand. Then I set the writing aside and later revise and polish — as many times as necessary. A long work, might need major surgery here and there.

    * So what is that initial mooshing called?
    * I did a lot of mooshing with this one little post.
    * If I write every day, my writing gets better.

  2. I try and do that with my posts, but I worry that it loses some of the fun and spontaneity. I start second guessing my words and it loses some of the message, but I am trying to do a better job of editing. Great post today, great info!

    • lucewriter

      In blog posts I tend to agree with you about the spontaneity being lost. I try not to revise much for blog posts for that very reason. And of course the time constraint, too. Thanks so much for being such a faithful reader!!

  3. Keep going! I love hearing your tips and what you’re learning through the process; inspires my own!

    • lucewriter

      Lindsay, thank you so much. I’m glad they inspire you for your own work! I feel as if I am working out my writing problems online ;).

  4. I’ll chime in here, inasmuch as your topic on revision ties in with my upcoming post “Stalling Out.”

    I think the key to writing is knowing what the story is about, which entails defining the themes (the “beads,” as you say). Sometimes you know right out of the gate, or you might not know until quite near the end of the story, when you’ve perhaps reached that “a-ha” moment (you finally know what your story is about and it isn’t anything like what you thought at the onset) and with shocking disbelief (but resolve), understand that you have to start over.

    The advice to write, wait, and then edit is sound, it’s just that we each have a different concept of part two, how long to wait before revising–a second? a minute? after a paragraph or chapter? We’re all different. I know writers who crank out entire manuscripts before editing and others who meticulously edit every paragraph as they go. In my experience, I’ve learned that if I’m crossing out every other word and sentence, it’s due to my lack of clear destination, unformed themes, or as yet well-defined characters; in that case, I need to do some research, soul-searching, or free-writing to (re)gain my perspective.

    But all that’s okay. In the end, I believe it doesn’t matter what the revision process is, so long as you don’t stop forward momentum.

    • lucewriter

      So true: “it doesn’t matter what the revision process is, so long as you don’t stop forward momentum.” Maybe it’s finding that perfect formula for the writer and the project. Sometimes I can get bogged down in revision and just need to keep moving through, and I think that’s why the idea of just finishing one durn draft first resonated with me.

  5. All I do is revision. Well, maybe there is more but I have a story that takes maybe a couple of hours, maybe more to put down on the page. Then I’m screwing with the thing for months. In this case writing is not like laying brick. You lay the brick once and be done with it then grab the next. Writing, you put down the words, stand back, pick up some of the words, move them here and there, stand back. Then you put down some words pick them up and throw them as far as possible usually with a curse. I think there is a Guinnes Book of Records record for word tossing. I know there is for brick throwing. And by quitting time you the writer, not the bricklayer, have unbuilt half of what you’ve done the day before. And oddly, this feels pretty good.

    • lucewriter

      I laughed so hard at this image of “word tossing.” Hahaha. This really rings true for me!!!

  6. Very good words about editing. It’s an important–and long–process! Thanks for coming by to like one of my posts.

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