KC (kc_anathema) wrote,

Revision and re-writing

Writing is a process, although everyone has their own individual style of revision, and certainly not always the one pushed by teachers or professors. Often high school teaches the formal, academic style of the writing process: outline, detailed outline, rough draft, revised draft, final copy.

I was the type of student who did her rough draft first, then made a quick outline, then did a quick edit and turned in a typed, barely revised copy. I got A's because I have a strong sense for the patterns, rhythms and styles in English literature. These grades also did me a disservice.

For years, I had no clue what real revision meant. As I worked on my literature and creative writing classes, the professors would mention revision without explaining what they meant. Even after years in writing courses, my natural talent was carrying me with little understanding of a rather vital part of creating with words.

One of the clues came in Neil Gaiman's self-referential pieces. I want to say it was a mini-comic in the Sandman series about him working while his daughter had a fever, and that sometimes while he wrote late at night, he would think that his paragraphs were terrible. But in the morning, when he looked back over his work, he'd find that it wasn't so bad as he thought, and if he just moved this sentence around, added words here, clarified there...

Another hint came with Ernest Hemingway's advice to "write drunk, edit sober." I think it's one of the reasons we write so well at night when we're exhausted but can't force anything out when we're fully rested and sitting down, intending to write. The internal editor kills creativity and must be knocked out with liquor, drugs, sleep deprivation, etc.

Finally, Bob Ross. I downloaded the PBS remix of his encouragement, and nearly the whole compilation is quotable in terms of the creative process. Don't fear mistakes--use them. You are the creator of your story with complete power. And ultimately, writing should be a joy. Sometimes a painful joy, but there's a reason it lures us back.

I finally understood what revision actually means about four or five months after I got my damn master's in creative writing. But it's okay. I learned it, and after years of practice, I finally have my own process down.

1. Write the story part. A little editing here or there might happen--changing a word out, catching a spelling error, adding a little more detail. The point of this step is just writing the raw manuscript. This part can take days or months, especially when you may only have time to write a couple paragraphs or just enough mental energy to write some sentences.

2. Once the new part of the manuscript is done, I go back and reread, adding in details, clarifying things that are confusing. Maybe I knew what the character meant with one line of dialogue, but it'd be incomprehensible to the reader. Whole sections of the chapter might need to be moved around, and in the worst case scenario, maybe rewritten from another point of view. This section is where sentences expand into paragraphs, setting is fleshed out, character thoughts or actions become more focused. Sections that wander are straightened out.

3. The final read through to check grammar, spelling, tenses, pronouns, 'does it make sense'ness, formatting.

One of my professors told us that "there's no such thing as good writing. There's only good re-writing." For the most part, it's true. Some authors can bang out a piece in nigh one go. Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" stands out as one such. But usually a piece needs revision, and it can be hard to visualize how to revise a work when one's never done so before.

Ultimately I found the conflict to lie in two points of view that don't quite mesh. I saw writing as a linear trail from point A to point B, and while grammar could be edited, clarification could be added, I couldn't always find a way to insert new bits into what I'd already written. I learned to break up paragraphs where the subject changed and slip new information inbetween like an unholy Frankenstein transition. And there is some value to this style, clunky as it is.

The more tangible way, I found, is to visualize the written text as a collage of words on scraps of paper, assembled like a newspaper cut-out ransom note. But each sentence is on its own separate paper, and each paragraph is on its own paper, and each word is on its own paper. Writing is not one unbroken string of ink but a pastiche of words glued together, and when you don't like the way they're put down, you can pick them up and jumble them and throw them back in a new arrangement, and suddenly what looked like a knot is now obviously a rope ladder.

Twelve years of school, four years of undergrad work and two more years of graduate study, and then four to seven months of my own reflection and thought to understand revision. I've learned more over the years that I've been out of college, and I add those new ideas and experiences to how I write and, ultimately, who I am as a writer. The more I found myself revisualizing my stories and learning to revise them, the more I found myself standing on my own story, adding pages of understanding to the past, plotting out where my string of ink is going next.

Tags: essay, insomnia
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