I have always revised. Of course. Every writer does.
But revision has come to be a very different thing than it was when I began publishing in 1976. Then I worked at a typewriter. At first it was the 1956 manual portable (beige with white keys) Smith Corona typewriter that had been my high school graduation gift.
Eventually I moved on from that to an electric typewriter (it made pondering moments a bit tense by sitting there humming at me) and then to an electronic one. One of those machines, an IBM Selectric, was self-correcting, meaning if you caught an error while the page was still in front of you, you could flip a switch and type backwards, whiting out the words you wanted gone. I learned to type as rapidly backwards as forwards.
But always when I worked on a typewriter I had a routine for revising. I triple-spaced my original draft, leaving room while the page was still in the typewriter to go back right then to type in changes. Once the page was out of the typewriter, I could write in my changes by hand.
When a page became too cluttered with revisions, I would retype it, switching to a different color of paper. I changed the colors with each draft, which allowed me at a glance to know how long a particular page had been part of the manuscript. (What use that knowledge was I’m no longer sure, but the practice gave me a pleasantly colorful manuscript during these early stages.)
Looking back at that cumbersome process—typing, correcting, retyping—and thinking what it is like today to write from first draft through every level of revision on a computer screen, I have to smile. The smile is one of delight. I love today’s technology!
I love the way it takes so much of the physical labor out of the process of writing.
I love the way it allows me to finesse every detail of a manuscript every time I look at it.
I love the way I can save multiple drafts, so I can experiment with a piece and still, should I need to, return to its earlier form.
I love the way Word challenges my spelling, even leaps in to correct common mistakes before my fingers notice they have stumbled.
And I love the way I can save reams and reams of manuscripts, from the failed to the already published, inside one small box.
Remembering those typewriters, I wonder, in fact, whether I ever truly revised before. Certainly the process now is more organic, more fluid, more deeply intuitive.
I have never reread my early books to try to weigh them against the work I do now. Even if I did, there would be, of course, no way of knowing whether the changes I might see were based on the freedom offered by today’s technology or whether they would simply represent a writer’s natural growth in mastery.
But every single time I sit down to write today, I rejoice. I rejoice at the way I can slip in and out of a manuscript, shaping, smoothing, enriching, culling. I rejoice in the power under my fingertips that makes revision downright fun!
I remember those old manuscripts, the piles of brightly colored pages. I remember the final process of retyping the whole blasted thing—with carbon paper so I would still have a copy when I entrusted the original to the post office—and I am so, so glad to live in the 21st Century.
Yes, I know. The 21st Century has its problems. Enormous ones. And we aren’t doing much to resolve them.
But oh . . . the technology that makes it possible to create on a computer—and revise, revise, revise—isn’t one of them!