In Defense of Not Writing #17: Revising

This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.


Here’s the deal: I have a B.A. in English with a nonfiction concentration; I have an MFA in writing; I have been published and workshopped multiple times; I have written a thesis and now a memoir draft; I teach writing to freshmen in college. I am, if I could for once not diminish myself, a qualified writer person. And still, I cannot revise.

Part of me just doesn’t know how especially without having a workshop space where peers I trust and teachers I look up to offer up suggestions as to where a piece should go now. I have sent the document around a bit but only heard back from one friend so far. And we both agreed that the second section needs a lot of work. The way she described it — that the voice was so different, the style was missing all the aspects intrinsic to the sections that come before and after it — was really the first time I was able to see what needed to be done. I recognized the missing pieces and set about righting the ship.

Which means I’m back to researching (which if I haven’t written a column specifically about that yet, then I need to). There are four tabs currently open on my laptop of various scholarship I want to read over, take note of, and fold into my narrative. I am once again spending hours with my one true love: JSTOR.

Does that count as revision? Or am I reading again? Does the revision only happen when I machete my way through paragraphs? Hoping a clearing waits for me beyond view?  Is revision simply everything that comes after you finish the draft?

All of my professors had different ways of going about revision. Jo Ann Beard had us go through a sentence check-list where we had to answer multiple questions, adjusting as necessary, before we could move on to the next one. The questions were as follows:

  1. Is it grammatical? (This doesn’t ultimately matter, but you need to know. Also relating to both how we like reading it AND how it looks on the page.)

  2. Is it true?

  3. Is it new?

  4. Is there a surprise in it? (The concept OR the language)

Ultimately we were trying to figure out if we could take a sentence away, if the sentence itself was expendable, but the information necessary. Of all the revision methods, this has stuck with me. Because it felt the most rote. Gave me quantifiable next steps that I could follow dutifully, without having to come up with much of the progression on my own. How am I supposed to always know what’s right for my memoir? What’s right for the story?

Some people I know barely revise. Others completely re-write their novel from scratch. Neither seems like the right choice for me, but I’m not sure what then is left. Currently I am simply reading through everything for the first time since finishing. All of my edits and changes are at the sentence level. Little grammar mistakes or syntax errors that I can manipulate to make the text feel more alive, more actionable. Not to mention, as a result of my writing 200+ pages in various chunks before linking them together, the tenses are all. over. the. place. So that’s been a big focus of mine.

This qualm is something Lydia Davis mentions, briefly, in her essay Revising One Sentence when she writes, “My stories tend to be written in one uninterrupted “breath” and they usually don’t work if I start piecing them together.” Is that what I’m afraid of? That the story doesn’t actually work when brought together into one storyline? Only through revising would I ever come to such a realization.

Davis’ thoughts on revision interest me because she correlates how interested she is to her willingness to immediately revise. She also tells us that “when you revise a sentence you are revising not only the words of the sentence but also the thought in the sentence.”

Woof. Right?

“By getting a certain description exactly right,” she continues. “I am sharpening my powers of observation as well as my ability to handle the language.”

A writing instructor once told me that my writing often “recounted” events but didn’t say anything about them. This comment continues to harm not only my self-confidence as a writer, but also my process.

So it does seem my hesitance to truly revise comes from some fear that I’ll be forced to admit the project sucks. That it was a waste of time and will never go anywhere. To pick it apart and experiment for the betterment of my language and writing, I have to first believe there is something worth fighting for. And I have to trust that I know best. That with some help, I can shape and mold the body so it unfolds new secrets to me.

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