THOUGHTS ON THE THOUGHT PROCESS OF REVISING
(which themselves are not through being revised)
Revision is not:
keep everything you already wrote, but tinker it so that it all works better and differently (which is probably an impossible assignment). Yes, you can remove stuff. (You don’t have to throw it away; you can save it in a separate file for later use.) It is REALLY OKAY and DESIRABLE for the piece to change as you revise. That is the point. Its meaning may change, its shape may change, its voice may change, who you seem to be in it may change. Revision is not just “the same thing, but fixed.” The outcome of revision may well be that it’s a different piece.
Revision doesn’t mean search for things that are wrong and then fix them.
Revision isn’t remedial.
For me, revision is:
What is this piece trying to become? What is it trying to be about? What is it trying to mean?
The piece is alive, it knows what it wants to be, and I have to find out, often by searching for clues that are already there. Yes, even though I wrote it, I need to search the words on the page for clues to the piece’s intentions. N.B.: not my intentions, its intentions.
It also is: Okay, I think I finally understand what this is saying, and now how do I shape it so it says that to a reader who is not me?
If my frame of mind has changed since I wrote the first draft, that can be an advantage. It gives me a new point of view on my work and my subject. The point is not necessarily to keep writing it the way I was writing it.
Revision triggers new creation, new unexpected writing, second thoughts become new first thoughts.
Metaphorically, revision is trading points of view, looking in from outside instead of out from inside. Which means: leaving the self and becoming other, the reader.
Asking “what is it really about?” is also a way of trading points of view. When you change your idea of what it’s really about, that changes what to put in and what to leave out. All of a sudden you see places where something’s missing, or excess material.
Revision is filling holes. I usually need someone else to help me see where there’s a hole in my work, something missing that shouldn’t be (not an intentionally placed gap, that’s a different thing). Of course, I need to be convinced for myself, for my own reasons, that it is a hole in the piece, but I usually need someone else’s help to see it. Then I try to fill it.
Or maybe it isn’t a hole, it’s more like a door or window that opens out to something unknown, but explorable. That means the piece might be able to grow in that direction. At any rate I can explore and find out what’s out there.
How does one explore?
Staying in One Place and Digging Downward:
Write your way deeper into a scene, a moment, on the physical-visual-sensory level. Make it more visible! Make it more feelable! Make the reader smell it!
Write your way into the moment on the mental level, that is, by way of reflection. Suppose you could stop the action of life and reflect on it at your leisure. Writing permits you to do this. Do it.
Find the key image in the piece. Contemplate it. Keep contemplating it until you become aware that it is alive and looking back at you. It knows things; what are they? It wants to push you in some direction; what direction?
Things to Ask:
“What did I mean by . . . ?” Look for places where, on closer inspection, you aren’t immediately sure you know what you meant. Or where you are fairly sure you didn’t manage to say what you meant. Where language fell short, perhaps, or you fell short. It’s a new day. Try again. But even better, perhaps, when you’ve said something and now you think “Hm – what exactly does that mean?”
“What am I not saying?”
“What’s here that I don’t want to say, or do want to say but am afraid to? What is the hidden text under this text that I wrote, the secret text, the text written in invisible ink? How much of that can I say?”
“If I could do anything as a writer, what would I do here?”
“Why not? Who says I can’t?”
You can download this as a Word document here: Thoughts on revising