Creative Writing 101: Revision
Some people have asked me what happened to my CRW101 posts on this site. The answer is that I stopped writing them, because after we read Cymbeline, the nature of the class shifted and we went into workshop mode. Since we’re now reading student work and not publicly available work, it doesn’t leave me with a whole lot to share. But, before that change happened–or rather, I guess, on the cusp of it–I did something I almost never do in any class I teach: I prepared a lecture and then I delivered it. The lecture was on the nature of revision, and was helpfully entitled “Revision: An Almost Obscenely Brief Overview.” Increasingly I wonder about the necessity of that qualifier, “almost,” but as we approach the end of the semester, and the due date of their final, some of my students have asked if I would make the lecture available (possibly because I promised to do it at the time, then forgot to) and so I’ve decided to post it here. The “lecture,” such as it is, runs just about 2000 words, and it doesn’t attempt to be in any sense comprehensive. It is intended for an audience of beginning writing students, some of whom may be encountering the concepts of editing and revision for the first time. It is divided into two parts. The first part discusses how–and if–to develop material from in-class exercises (and/or free-writes) into workable and work-with-able drafts. The second part outlines two basic principles of editing–adding stuff, taking stuff away–and the advantages of reading your work aloud and editing by ear. The whole thing demonstrates a clear bias towards realist prose fiction–especially in its examples–but the attempt was made to be inclusive, and most of these notions should be adaptable for use by anyone.
Revision: An Almost Obscenely Brief Overview
“Inspiration” is a very funny thing. It can come on strong, out of nowhere, and might be triggered by anything. You overhear a conversation, something catches your eye, your boy/girlfriend makes/ruins your day, and bam—you’re off to the notebook or the computer or whatever. There’s also, of course, the possibility of prompt-driven writing, which in my estimation really means anything assigned: a homework essay, a newspaper article, or the exercises we do in this class, just to name a few. We hope, of course, to be inspired—or at any rate, interested—in this work while we’re doing it, but even if we’re not, we know it needs to be done anyway.
Irrespective of whether you are writing because the spirit moved you or because you’re under some gun, the first draft is a kind of flying blind. You yourself probably have very little concept of what you are writing or why. If the writing is in some regard drawn from life—as most art is—you may not yet know whether you mean to stay true to your experience, or fictionalize it, or—if the latter—in what ways. You may simply be laying words and thoughts down on a page, unsure even whether you are writing prose or poetry, or something else altogether. Is this something you’ll want to share with people, or is it strictly private, for your eyes alone?
At the first-draft stage, you don’t need to know the answers to any of these questions. In fact, the less thought you give them the better off you’ll probably be. So you write and you write, and you wind up with—something. A mess, probably, but maybe one with some genuine promise. You tuck it away in your folder or on your hard drive. You go away. Some time goes by.
Then you come back. Now what happens?
The first thing you should do is recognize that you’ve already made your first major decision in the revision process, which was deciding to try and work with this piece again at all. Any good writer has a file somewhere filled with all their abandoned and aborted first drafts—all the stuff that seemed like it was worth attempting but then later turned out to not be. If the writer doesn’t have this, it’s either because (1) s/he is a heaven-sent Genius, (2) s/he is a hack with no self-editing skills and no sense, or else (3) s/he burned the file up in an oil drum by the highway and scattered the ashes in the sea, like you’re supposed to.
But let’s assume you’re not doing that last thing. You’ve got this piece, and you think it’s pretty good, or anyway you think it could be pretty good. If you can figure out how to get it there.
The first thing you want to do is re-read what you’ve written. It’s likely—almost certain, in fact—that what’s really on the page is going to be different than how you remember it. It might be better, it might be worse, but in any case—different. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you take the time out to survey the lay of the land, and make those (re)discoveries, whatever they might happen to be. Most likely, it won’t be a question of better and worse at all. It’ll be a question of interest. Very often, the thing you initially sat down to write about will have been eclipsed during the writing process by something else that caught your attention. So maybe the first revision questions to ask yourself are: What do I think this piece is about? What is it actually about? And then, what do I want it to be about?
That last one is especially important, because it’s going to govern what happens next. Maybe the thing that side-tracked you is much more interesting than your original thought, which is why you pursued it when you were writing. Very often in literature, just as in life, it’s the alleyways and by-roads, the out of the way places, where the most interesting experiences are to be had. On the other hand, maybe you’re dead-set on writing about X, not Y or Z or Q, and in that case you’re going to need to back up to the road-fork where you made that hard right turn, and this time take the left instead.
Revising Up, Revising Down
At the most basic level, there are only two ways to revise something. You can add to it, or you can take away from it. (Or you can spend all day moving commas around, but that’s a whole other thing.) If you’re adding, the main concerns are what to add, and where. If you’re writing prose, especially prose fiction, you might be looking for opportunities to add detail, to the emotional state of a character, or the physical details of the world of the story, or wherever else it seems relevant and useful. What you don’t want to do is go around adding details for their own sake, just because you can, or even worse—just to make the piece longer.
You may wind up adding whole scenes or events to a story. In the original draft, you might have written that Sally took the bus across town to her doctor’s appointment. In your revision, it might occur to you that if the busroute Sally is on goes by the Raritan, then perhaps it would be a fine thing to actually write the scene of Sally on the bus, looking out over the polluted water and exposed riverbeds thinking about despoiled nature and how sick the world is, or perhaps irked that there’s traffic—Sally’s going to be late. And maybe these thoughts are interrupted by a girl in the next row loudly cracking her gum and blathering into her cellphone about some problem she’s having with her boyfriend.
Are these useful details? Is this or that scene integral or extra? A happy diversion or an irritating distraction? Only the writer can answer these questions, but the point is this: every authorial choice you make as a writer, will open up a number of new possibilities to you, and simultaneously close off several others. A large part of your job is simply managing the array of options, which does not mean denying instinct—it means harnessing it.
The other part of revision—the main part, I would argue—is cutting, or revising down. Does your work repeat itself? Are you overly fond of a certain word or phrase? Do you describe the weather too much? Hair color? What someone is thinking? These are all examples of details that can be useful and telling and interesting, when used judiciously and strategically, but which, when over-used, bog the work down and make it uninteresting and repetitive and scattered.
A piece of writing—from the shortest poem to the longest novel—is a contained space. Even if you’re whispering, the sound is going to reverberate. Whatever you chuck at the walls or the ceiling is going to bounce right back at your head. The biggest problem many beginning writers (hell, many established writers) have is saying far too much—usually because they’re worried about saying too little. But the reader is a very perceptive creature, loyal as any good dog, and once you’ve earned his trust he will generally stick by your side, and pay attention to what you are telling him. As such, even a very important detail need not be repeated over and over. There’s no hard and fast rule about this (or about anything when it comes to writing) and sometimes, of course, the repetition itself is the point, but generally speaking, if the writer repeats something once or twice, its importance is going to be established in the reader’s mind.
Writing is an art form that relies heavily on exchange—on a give and take between the writer and the reader. If you do all the reader’s work for them, you are depriving them of their rightful experience as the reader, that is, of the very thing they were looking forward to doing with you. Perhaps you have heard the expression “show, don’t tell.” It’s not a perfect directive, but its better than many, and on the whole not so bad, as directives go. In any case, it’s worth keeping in mind as a kind of standard, to be broken with, violated, or otherwise perverted on as-needed basis.
One of the best ways to revise is by ear. There are (at least) two reasons for this. The first is strictly practical—repeated words, clumsy or confused phrasing, and stuff that seemed like it’d be cool to write but actually came out boring, can all be difficult to identify on the page, because when you read your own work on the page you’re not really seeing what is there. You’re seeing what’s there mixed with how you feel about it, mixed with how you feel about how you felt when you wrote it, mixed with roughly a million other things. So reading your work aloud—to yourself or to someone else—is a way to change the form of your experience of the work. It changes from a reading experience to a listening experience, and your ear knows things about language that your eye does not. It knows, for example, when a joke falls flat, or when somebody says something that it didn’t understand. It knows that it’s heard the word “really” four times in the sentence “Sally was really tired, because she had stayed up really late last night, watching an old movie she had really loved since she was a really little kid.” And it knows that that’s a problem. Your eye knows this too, in its way, but the eye’s response is often to read past irritating stuff like that—you start to scan and skim, and so the problem doesn’t get corrected. But the ear has no such luxury. So one great way to revise down is by reading aloud, with a pen in your hand.
The second reason is less quantifiable, but hardly less important. All writing has rhythms. It doesn’t need to be rhymed, metered verse to have a flow to it. The music of the words—whether poetry or prose—should help move the reader through the text. It should make the reader want to dwell and re-read, but also to keep going. Speaking more generally, it should in some way—subtly or unsubtly—enhance the reading experience. Think back on texts we have read: the dizzying bursts of fine dark detail and overflowing heart in Christine Schutt’s story; the easy-does-it wit of the David Berman poems; the plain-jane sentences of Hemingway (reinforced by his elementary diction); and so on.
If a character is speaking—who are they? What do they sound like? Who are they talking to? What are they hoping to gain or convey by telling this story? What are they holding back? All of these things are going to have an effect on how the story is told. A guy having a fight with his mother about whether to send grandpa to a home doesn’t use the same tone of voice or lexicon of invectives that he uses when having a fight with his best guy friend about a girl they both like.
There is no “right number” of drafts for a piece of writing. You work on it until you feel like you can’t anymore, until it seems like all the signs are pointing to ‘this is done.” Probably you are wrong, and it’s not done, but you don’t know that yet, so don’t be afraid to believe yourself. Only be aware—on some level—that your beliefs are wrong. The next step is to take your precious darling out into the world and wait for somebody to slaughter it. This won’t take long.
You think you’ve written a tragedy, then you read it to your boyfriend and he laughs himself to tears—funniest thing he’s ever heard, he says. You could kill him.
Don’t kill him.
The fact is, there’s always a gap between what we think we have put out into the world, and what is actually there. And what the audience takes away from it is something else again. What a good reader or listener will do for you is not say “this is good” or “I liked it,” or “it’s bad” or “I hated it.” These kinds of critiques, even when offered up in all honesty, are simply not very useful. They don’t tell you anything about the work; they tell you about the audience. What a good reader or listener does for you is offer an honest reaction to the work: this is what I got out of your story. It seemed to me your poem was about ____. Very often the audience misunderstands the work in some large or small way. That’s useful feedback. Perhaps you’ve put something in there that you didn’t mean to, which is why everyone thinks your story isn’t actually about a doctor’s appointment, but rather about Sally’s fraught relationship with her mother. You might have never meant to include that theme, and would never have known it was there if someone hadn’t told you. Maybe it makes the piece stronger, and you want to keep it, or play it up. Or maybe you really do just want to write about a doctor’s appointment, in which case—snip.
Tags: Creative Writing 101