In Praise of Revision

“Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a very dirty peanut across the floor with your nose.”                    —Joyce Carol Oates

4_29I’m not sure I would have said it quite that way, but I agree entirely that first drafts are hard work. Nothing like the fun of revision.

The fun of revision? Yes! And yes, yes, yes! I love revising. Don’t you?

When I sit down to write a first draft, I have nothing before me but a blank screen or, it used to be, a blank sheet of paper . . . and sometimes a nearly blank mind. I can throw words at the screen. That’s no problem. Words are the easy part. But getting a story up and moving that is going to go someplace meaningful, someplace that will move my readers, someplace that will fold back on itself and give my opening words true power . . . that is always daunting.

Oh yes, there is the rare time when inspiration arrives on the page whole, unchallenged. (The few times that has happened for me have usually happened with something very short.) But more often executing the first draft requires serious plodding. The story evolves, as it must, one word at a time, one slowly conceived, carefully weighed word at a time. It’s work, good work but demanding . . . hard. Perhaps just a bit like pushing a very dirty peanut across the floor with your nose.

Revising, though, that’s when the fun begins.

The secret of revision for me is to love doing it. The secret is never to look at what I’ve already written and say to myself, “Ugh! That doesn’t work. And now I’m going to have to do it again.” Rather, I begin by looking at what I have before me and loving it. Not loving it in a way that makes it sacred, something too wonderful to be touched. But loving it in a way that says, “Oh, I like this and this and this about what I have here. Now let me see what I can do to make it even better.”

When I have something I love in front of me, the energy flows from the piece to me, so that continuing the work requires very little slogging. The manuscript itself draws me in and pulls me forward.

Let me note, though, that I’m talking about revising, not polishing. Most people polish. That’s when you lovingly caress what’s already there, trimming, refining. That’s a process I engage in every step of the way and devote myself to especially ardently before I send a manuscript off, and that’s the most fun of all.

But it’s not what I’m talking about when I speak of revising.

Revision means exactly what the word says, re-vision, finding a new vision. It means looking at what I have in front of me and asking what more I can bring to it that goes beyond my first conception, asking what else is inside me that hasn’t yet made its way to the page.

Sometimes in the process of revising—truly revising—a piece will fall into bits. And sometimes when that happens it can’t be reassembled. But it’s always worth the risk of asking the deep questions that challenge a manuscript’s right to exist. That’s the only way I can know whether I have given it all I have to give. It’s the only way I can know I’m doing my own best work.

And what else matters? Not the way my work compares with that of other writers. I’m not in charge of that. Inevitably, my work will be better than some, will not be able to touch others. But so what? What matters is that it is my own best work, the best I have to give. And revising takes me there.

I write first drafts because they are necessary, because I must have something in front of me to begin my best and most real work.

But the deepest joy always comes with the revising.

Is that true for you, too? I would love to hear from you about your own experience with revising.

16 thoughts on “In Praise of Revision

  1. Sue LaNeve

    I love when my VCFA world and my local writing pals intersect. Augusta Scattergood who wrote the wonderful book, GLORY, sent me this post, Marion, because she knew I was facing a major revision. I remember you speaking about how we often begin a story with one idea but then get to the end of the first draft and realize, OH THAT’S WHAT THIS STORY IS REALLY ABOUT. I’m working with Franny Billingsley on this revision and am now considering her philosophy about getting to get to the heart of my character and my story to deepen it. Reading your thoughts about re-vision inspire me–I love the story, believe in its right to exist, and I sense there is something deeper that I’m grappling for that will surface.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Good luck, Sue. Sometimes I wish the process could be more conscious, that I wouldn’t have so often to journey in the dark, but I’ve found that the discoveries made in that dark are often the important ones. What I know I know is of much less interest . . . even to me! Maybe especially to me.

      Reply
  2. Ellen Reagan

    “Does this piece come out of my own deepest struggle, relevant to my own life, or am I simply handing down “truths” from above, playing the wise adult for young readers?” Thank you so much for this blogpost, and especially for this clarification on what determines a manuscript’s right to exist. I needed to read this today.

    Reply
  3. writersideup

    I’m not going to reiterate what everyone else said, but will say I DO reiterate it 🙂 Fantastic post, Marion, and the comments, too. LOVE this way of thinking. I, too, love revision, but I don’t feel all that horrible about the first draft. I guess it depends on a writer’s process as far as pantser, plotter, both, short, long, inspired, forced, etc. For me, I often have trouble (literally with my brain) pulling up what I need when I need it, but thoroughly enjoy when things flow 🙂 I love, and sometimes struggle, with each stage of the process, but I have to say, I find polishing the easiest and something I can do–oh, I don’t know–forever?! lol Thanks for your thoughts of wisdom 😀

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Donna Marie, I glad you used the phrase “love, and sometimes struggle with.” I wonder if sometimes we are so intent on wanting the process to be easy, to flow, that we forget to love the struggle, too.

      Reply
      1. writersideup

        LOL, Marion…I can’t say I love the struggle so much as the process 🙂 Though I think we all need to expect the struggle and embrace that it’s part of it. It’s nice when things go easy, but as we all know, the struggle makes us appreciate it that much more. I also think it may boost the result because we have to work harder at it sometimes 🙂

        Reply
  4. Sarah Lamstein

    Like Mary, I’m deep in the process of revising, but it’s a picture book, and though the words seem apt and the sentiments true, I’m not sure of its direction. That may not be revealed to me for some time. So I can’t be busy with it right now, which is frustrating. I have to wait.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      You bring up an important point, Sarah, that it does no good to revise until you can see your way to doing something different, until you can find your direction. That is especially true with a picture book. With a long piece you can do a certain amount of stumbling around until clarity hits. But if you don’t have clarity when you start out on a picture book, it can be hard to get there. And when you know you don’t know, often the best thing you can do is to put the piece down and step away and wait for new insight. I wish you well!.

      Reply
  5. Karen Henry Clark

    I thought your original post was terrific, but as I read through your response to Mary, I discovered even more meaningful commentary. Writing a piece must allow every child to find a separate truth, not simply copy and paste an answer from an author’s lesson book. I admire you so incredibly much.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thank you, Karen. As with all advice, this one is easier to say than to live, but I think we all come to recognize those moments and those pieces when we are truly writing to save ourselves. They are the ones that make a difference to others, too.

      Reply
  6. gardenlearning

    Does this piece come out of my own deepest struggle, relevant to my own life, or am I simply handing down “truths” from above, playing the wise adult for young readers? If my piece comes out of my own honest questions, not something I’m determined to teach, then I believe it has the greatest chance to say something profound

    Wow this line says so much! So much about you as a writer and about your love for your readers. Love you thoughts on revision and a powerful reply to Mary!

    Thanks for sharing you thoughts on writing.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thanks. This kind of exchange demonstrates why I so love being challenged by my readers, asked to go deeper. I have to turn the compost of my own mind and discover what I am truly feeding.

      Reply
  7. Mary Atkinson

    Marion,
    What are “the deep questions that challenge a manuscript’s right to exist”? Do tell! I’m in the middle of a big revision now. What should I be asking myself?
    Thanks!
    Mary

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Ah . . . Mary. You have caught me. A phrase like that is so easy to use without sorting the specifics of its meaning. But beyond all the usual craft tests–do my characters have substance? am I writing with precision and care? does every single scene move the story forward? etc., etc–there is, I believe, one overarching question we should apply to everything we write: Does this piece come out of my own deepest struggle, relevant to my own life, or am I simply handing down “truths” from above, playing the wise adult for young readers? If my piece comes out of my own honest questions, not something I’m determined to teach, then I believe it has the greatest chance to say something profound, something which gives it a right to exist for readers of any age.

      Reply

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