Revision is the hardest part of writing. It comes after the free flowing first draft and before the sentence by sentence editing process. Revision is the process of looking at things on a macro scale so your ideas are logical to the reader. Yet most people think that overcoming “writer’s block” and “improving their grammar skills errors” are the main two things a person must learn to write well. As a writing instructor, I spend more time walking students through the revision process than I do helping them with creativity problems or understanding contractions. There are two writing myths that cause us to have misconceptions about what revision is.
Myth 1: There are only two drafts: a rough draft and then a final draft. As a high school student, I learned that you wrote a rough draft, fixed the grammar errors of your rough draft and then you were finished. I was never taught distinction between revision and editing. Editing deals grammar and “flow” on a sentence to sentence level, while revision dealt with organization of ideas. Revision deals more with finding your main idea and making sure your ideas are logical and do not confuse the reader.
We must learn to make space of a “revision phrase.” This means we expect that we will spend more than 3 “drafts” perfecting a piece of writing. Writer Dave Eggers says he spends multiple drafts polishing a piece of writing to make it work:
“I write huge chunks and then go back and edit. I tend to do about 14 drafts of anything I publish. Sometimes more. But I favor the method whereby I throw lots of words down onto the page and then go back and shape the structure, polish the sentences, and so on. I try to have my sentences scream and crackle and jump and swim. That's the best way to keep the energy coming onto the page. I know some writers are slower and more methodical, but because I usually listen to fast music when I write, the words tend to happen quickly.”
I’m not suggesting the revision phase of writing requires someone to do 14 drafts. However, how can we expect that our writing will be excellent after 2 drafts, when an accomplished writer like Eggers needs more than 10? A more realistic view of writing is that there is a first draft, a 2nd draft, a 3rd draft(possibly more), a more polished “rough draft” and then sentence by sentence editing.
Myth 2: When you are writing you will always feel excited and inspired. As I’ve said in another blog entry, typically you first draft should be fun and inspired. You need to feel good about what you are writing. But, after the first draft, the Wordsworth-like spontaneity fades a bit and you look at the practical elements of the idea. You are less infatuated with your idea and must think “Is this connecting with my reader?” The sooner I accept the fact that after the brainstorm it is likely going to be work, the more likely I am to see the piece of writing to “publication” or ready to present to an audience. In his book “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser says:
“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this is in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”
Everything I write is not going to come out of my brain perfect and exactly how I meant it. And it is hard to accept this sometimes. This is essential so you do not ditch a great idea because you aren’t in an “good mood.” There is a temptation to give up on a writing project and wait till another idea that flows more freely on the page. Sometimes we have to just stick with the first idea until we figure out how to make it work. It is easier to start a new writing project than to finish a difficult one.
How then, do I revise my writing?
Revision is about reorganizing, cutting, rephrasing, outlining, rethinking, finding new metaphors. My two favorite revision techniques are reorganizing and cutting.
Revision Tip 1: Cutting Paragraphs Cutting is essential to revision. William Zinnsser worked as a journalist for years. Working as an editor he told many beginning writers to cut their early drafts by 50%. He says “Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.” Zinnsser was always looking to cut out unnecessary words and wanting to avoid clutter. Zinnsser’s main point is not for the writer to sound smart, but for the main message to be clear.
The revision process thinks more about what might distract the reader. Some paragraphs do not fit into the narrative or align with your main point. This is when you cannot hold onto certain ideas, but cut them out of the essay completely. Why is this hard? After working on an idea for 20 minutes during the second draft, then realizing it does not fit on the 3rd draft-------you are hesitant to cut it out. You hesitate to cut that idea out because you spent 20 minutes on it. Even if it is a perfect paragraph, it still might hinder you from getting your point across. Zinsser says “Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one.”
I struggle with this all the time. I say to myself “I want my blog entry to be about both (1) the fact people need to be exposed to book titles and (2) that classic American novels are put on too high of a pedestal.” That was my last blog entry, I had to cut the second idea about the classic American novel. The idea is saved in the “notes section” on a Word document. If I really feel the world needs to hear about that idea, I can write a new blog entry. My first point was the one “provocative thought” I wanted to leave the reader with.
Get in the habit of cutting sentences. One time I asked my friend Chris to edit an article I wrote for the local paper. Chris cut out at least 6-7 sentences, probably about 200 words. After seeing what he cut out, I realized my writing was much stronger and concise. I realized I was being repetitive. Sometimes we cannot see this.
Revision Tip 2 Reorganizing Ideas We must make sure our writing is logical and appealing to the reader. Once we get to the revision stage, we must think whether our piece of writing “flows.” When I ask my class to critique a piece of writing, I typically ask “Does it flow?” I typically give them a mediocre piece of writing to see if they can detect the lack of logic. Almost immediately I get some kind of answer “Yes” or “Na, it doesn’t flow.” I never have to explain what “flow” is to a classroom of students. They just inherently understand that I am asking if it reads smoothly and holds their attention.
To make sure your piece of writing “flows” we must think about the logic of the ideas. Ask yourself questions that deal with organization: Should we place our strongest reason for supporting the claim as the first body paragraph or last? Should we tell the personal story in the first paragraph or right in the middle? Should we signal the reader that we understand the opposing side in the 2nd paragraph or in the 4th paragraph? Get comfortable moving ideas around. It’s essential.
Don’t underestimate the old-fashioned outline. The same kind of outline you had in middle school can be very helpful with imagining and re-imagining whatever you are writing. I heard a psychology professor at UNCG suggested that he creates an outline for all his academic writing. Outlines help the most advanced writers. As much as some might feel restrained by the outline, the outline can really help with being logical. It is better to be clear and logical by using an outline than be confusing to your reader in the name of “creativity.”
Writing is much more complex than simply overcoming writer’s block(brainstorming) and fixing minor grammatical errors (editing). The process of revision is often overlooked because it is difficult to put into words, varies from person to person and can be mentally exhausting. What I’ve written is all for the sake of helping fellow writers complete their writing projects. Whether your project is an editorial or a 500-page book, you have to push through the difficult phases of writing to finish it off. What must you do to complete that unfinished Word document sitting on your computer? To present it to your audience?