Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What Condition My Revision is In

This is how I used to do it.

Write a story from beginning to end. Check it for gross grammar gufaws and spelling splunk, then submit to my instructor. After my story or poem or essay was critiqued in a workshop setting where everyone reads your work and makes comments, I would go back to my desk and edit, a few things. Sometimes I considered my classmates comments, but more often I took the lazy route and corrected only the problems I thought were issues.

My professors at UIUC told us the revisions should be "significant," yet how does one evaluate "significant"? I rationalized that my "significant" had to be significant enough. I had other classes you know, a husband, children, grandchildren, pigs that had to be fed for God's sake, thus my  second draft was often completed in less than "significant" ways. I submitted it on time and I received credit for following the assignment, but what did I gain?


I knew my work could be better. I knew I took the easy way out. I knew I had shorted myself.

So, with two years of classes behind me which included three poetry and four creative writing classes plus several other classes which required nonfiction essays,  I am not surprisingly, mildly appalled at some of my work. Granted a couple of pieces were brilliant, (the moon was high and bright those nights) but most were not my best work.

Now though, is my chance for serious revisions and I am delighted to tell you, I'm having a blast doing it. I saved the majority of my classmates comments and you know what? Some of those young folk were brilliant! Their comments were right on. Using phrases like, "this sounds forced" and "would a mother really say this?!" have made me laugh out loud. Much of my early work was forced and cliched and deserved the red pen, although they usually used black and once green.  They said or wrote positive things too, but it was the brave ones, the ones who called me out by pronouncing, "this makes no sense at all," who push me forward now.

Below is one of my stories and the section in italics was the memory a son had of his father. One of my classmates comments is on the left. he wrote, "I understand the sentiment here, but it feels too perfect, like a sepia toned photograph."

Sepia toned photograph. My classmate nailed it, the scene was entirely too sappy and at this point in my story, the father had not earned his sons fond memories of him. I ended up taking out the scene entirely and the story gained its own validity.

So, how do I revise now? I read a piece of my work, twice. The first time I just read, but the second time, I read it out loud. Our eyes can fool us into thinking we've written something well, but when read aloud, the bumpy parts are heard, like nails on a chalkboard. If I have them, I read through the comments made by others, but only once. I look for trends in the comments.Then, I set drafts, comments, everything,  out of reach, and  I rewrite the piece from scratch. This was a technique suggested by Professor John Rubins at UIUC. He said, "What is good will reappear, and what is bad will fall away."

Often my final draft is very different from my first draft, a result I have come to appreciate.

Try revising some of your work this way, and let me know your thoughts. Or,take a moment and tell me your revision process and why it works for you.


  1. I think the time pressure of school and deadlines lends itself to forced and cliched. I used to think that I could hardly wait to graduate so I could go back and actually study and learn something about all the fascinating stuff that was being presented to me. And don't you think time helps? If I give my work a couple months rest, I'm always amazed to realize that it wasn't as brilliant as I thought.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Leigh, I deleted my first comment since it was poorly written. In the old days I just blogged whatever, and you are right, when I look back I am amazed at it's non-brilliance. But, I wonder, was it so bad, or are we just more critical of ourselves? Both, I suppose. I am spending time re-reading several of the novels I had to speed read for school and having a blast doing so. Hemingway's work is so layered, that with each read I discover new twists, and more inferences as I also find when I study the work of Faulkner and Woolf and a new author I appreciate, David James Poissant, who wrote "The Heaven of Animals". These masters of fiction are intimidating and encouraging and make my reading life, rewarding.

    3. Studying those who have mastered a craft is an excellent learning tool. Didn't they used to teach painting that way? I need to do more of that (except I'm a very slow reader).

      I agree that we become more critical or ourselves when time becomes a factor. I've realized that eventually I have to stop re-reading my writing because I can't leave it alone! Of course, I'm writing nonfiction, so there is always the concern of communicating clearly, especially for explaining how to do something. I'm trying to paint a picture in my readers head to match the one in my head by using words.

  2. I sent you an email in response to yours (re: writing).