Revision means more than just proofreading or making cosmetic changes to a draft. It means stepping aside, letting the draft get cold on the page, and then looking at it again with full openness. Its origin is Latin revidere: literally, “to see again.”
Surveys indicate that professional writers regularly spend between 50 – 90% of their writing process in revision. What is your percentage?
Some writers claim, of course, that they write by a process resembling divine inspiration and that to change anything would be to falsify their prose’s truth. Jack Kerouac wrote his famous novel On the Road in a 20-day outpouring on a continuous 150-foot roll of teletype paper (he stuck one end in the typewriter and fired away until he was done). Once he’d finished, he declined to make any changes, inspiring Truman Capote to respond, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” The work of making the changes necessary in order for the book to be published was left to Malcolm Cowley, Kerouac’s editor.
Let’s face it: we can’t attend to everything when we’re generating a first draft. It’s likely that this first time through, we’re simply getting our ideas down on the page. We’re not thinking principally of the reader here. We’re not attending closely to style, to grammatical correctness, to developing the subtle patterns of coherence which characterize fine writing. We shouldn’t be attending to these matters too closely; they can distract us from the main purpose of a first draft, which is to invent material and discover our ideas (thus that famous line again, “How do I know what I say until I see what I write?”).
It’s usually not until we’ve finished a draft that we know what we really have to say. It’s certainly not until then that we’re ready to go back and connect everything meaningfully based on this new insight. In many cases, this insight that comes at the very end of the first draft is the hot stuff that should provide the main focus of the essay your professor is actually expecting. Now it’s time to delve.
Think, too, of truly artful writing as being analogous to recording a piece of music in a studio. Often the song we hear on the radio or a CD is composed of many tracks, tracks that have been skillfully blended to produce a work that is far richer than what could have been achieved through only a single track.
When talking about revision in the classroom I like to play Beatle George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” to illustrate this principle. Listening to it, one is likely to conclude that many singers and a whole studio’s worth of musicians participated in this hymn of praise to the universal divine spirit. But in fact it’s all Harrison: he played all the instruments and sang all the voice parts. He accomplished the final effect through re-recording, or “overdubbing.”
In revision you, too, have the opportunity to record new tracks.
Rule of thumb: always allow yourself ample time to revise.