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
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.