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What Does Your Draft Want to Be When It Grows Up?


For some writers, revision is a dirty word. It conjures up images of red-inked corrections, scowling English teachers, and late night sessions with coffee cup in one hand and thesaurus in the other. To revise, these writers assume, is to admit defeat: You failed, the work failed, and now it’s time to “fix” it. But in truth, revision isn’t an admission of defeat. Nor is it about fixing something that’s broken. Revision doesn’t mean merely correcting grammatical errors, moving a word here or there, or making changes to please someone else. Revision is re-vision, re-seeing, re-imagining. It’s an opportunity to view your work through new eyes.

Writers revise in different ways. Some revise as they go along, laying down each sentence carefully, considering various options as they write. They stand simultaneously inside and outside the writing, and by the time they reach the end of the piece, it is virtually revised. Others are internal revisers. They carry unwritten work in their heads, mentally trying out ideas, discarding what doesn’t work, planning what they will write in such specific detail that when the work finally makes it to the page, it’s already passed through the equivalent of several revisions.
I occasionally revise as I go along, but more often I revise after the first draft is written. Most writers I know use this method. “I’m not a good writer,” James Michener once remarked, “but I’m a good rewriter.”  So, first drafts become second drafts, then third drafts; some work even goes through multiple revisions, often over long periods of time. Thoreau wrote seven drafts of Walden over a period of eight years.

During the revision process, work can change dramatically. When I look back at early drafts of my poems, stories and essays (I call them “messays” when they’re in progress) I’m amazed at what they grew up to be. That’s the way I like to think of revision, as a way of helping my work be what it wants to be when it grows up.

Not all writing requires revision, but most pieces of writing can benefit from re-seeing, re-working, and re-imagining. Anne Sexton, in a letter to a young poet who asked for advice on some poems he had sent, replied, “I am not a prophet but I think you will make it if you learn to revise, if you take your time, if you work your guts out on one poem for four months instead of just letting the miracle (as you must feel it) flow from the pen and then just leave it...What you sent shows you COULD climb there if you pounded it into your head that you must work and rework these uncut diamonds of yours.” Work and rework: good advice for those who want to shape and polish their uncut diamonds.

But hard work alone is not enough. Revision also requires passion and commitment. If you decide that a piece needs to be revised, ask yourself how deeply you care about the piece. Has the writing sprung from personal necessity? Does it deal with an issue you feel passionately about? Was it inspired as well as required? If the answer to these questions is “No,” chances are you may not care deeply enough about the piece to help it become all it could become; your time and energies might better be used revising a piece you do care about, or writing a new piece altogether. But if you decide you’re willing to give the time and energy that revision requires, you’re in for an exciting journey. Rewriting can be as rewarding as writing, sometimes even more so.

If you’re going to revise, you must learn to become a reader of your own work. This requires a shift in perspective. While you were writing, you were on the inside of the work; now, as a reviser, you are on the outside, viewing the work with new eyes. You can’t do this if you’re too close to your work. Sometimes all that’s required to achieve perspective on an experience is time. It’s best to wait long enough for your writing to “cool” but not so long that you lose your passion for the piece. If you wait too long, you may not be able to reenter the piece with energy; you may run out of steam

When you feel you’ve waited a suitable amount of time, reread what you’ve written, imagining that it’s someone else’s work, someone who’s asked you for a helpful response. It always helps me to read a piece aloud. If I stumble on a sentence, chances are another reader will stumble as well. Sometimes I read the piece into a tape recorder, then play it back, imagining I’m hearing the words for the first time; occasionally I ask someone else to read the work aloud to me.

As you review your piece, make notes in the margins or on a separate sheet of paper. Underline favorite sections, highlight unclear sentences or passages that seem out of place, ask questions of the writer. (Yes, I know you’re the writer, but separating your writer and reader selves helps create the distance a critical response requires.) If you’ve already established your personal standards and goals for your work, now is the time to consult them. Ask yourself if this piece of writing reflects your overall goals as a writer and if it meets the standards you’ve established for your work.

Any technique that helps you move from writer to reader of your own work will help you achieve the distance and perspective revision requires. Create mind games if you have to. Several years ago, I invented two imaginary readers to help me move my work from the “private I” to the “public eye.” I call them Susanna and Gritz. Susanna is plump, grandmotherly, open, and kind. If a creature could be fashioned totally out of vowels, Susanna would be that creature. She is so soft she is almost boneless. She poses no threat. Susanna loves whatever I write, and eagerly awaits my next work. When I write for Susanna, I am never afraid. She encourages me to experiment, to have fun on the page, to write anything and everything I want, in whatever way I want. She is my “private I” muse.

But when I want to move my work into the “public eye,” I summon Gritz, named for a childhood piano teacher who terrified me into excellence. Gritz is all angle and bone and sharp edge. If Susanna is fashioned from vowels, Gritz is chiseled from consonants. He hisses and spits out orders. “Shape up that sentence!” “Excise that cliche!” “Kill off that stereotyped character!” He holds a bare light bulb over my pages and forces confessions: No, I haven’t practiced enough this week. You’re right, I’m not ready for the recital. 

Susanna and Gritz are two sides of my writer self. Each helps with a different stage in the writing process.


Excerpted from Write Your Heart Out