A Brief Handbook of Revision for Writers
Few good works, if any, spring fully formed in first draft. What few spontaneous acts of literary creation exist, such as Coleridge’s fragmentary “Kubla Khan,” are those of authors whose technical abilities match their genius—which is to say authors whose knowledge and practice of art are highly developed.
The student writer may have a secret or instinctive belief that writing should occur spontaneously, and certainly when writing succeeds that way, it’s a gift. More often than not, however, wholly successful passages spring from unerring, spontaneous inspiration only intermittently and unconscious artistry cannot be depended on to achieve completed, successful works.
Bernard Malamud, who was legendary for his meticulousness, wrote as many as fifty drafts of a story, and it’s reasonable to say that by the time he finished, he knew exactly what was in the story. When he began a story, and through successive drafts, his intuition provided some material that was accurate without his deliberating on it and other material that became more accurate in the pattern of the story by virtue of his repeated scrutiny and revision.
Literary art is neither all conscious nor all unconscious; an interplay between the two attitudes typifies the process by which stories are written. However, in the course of drafting a story, the author’s movement from inception to completion is from lesser to greater consciousness in regard to both content and technique. On balance, a work that approaches mastery represents a highly sustained play of practiced, if automatic, skills across inspired material. Like a musician or painter, a writer practices, learns, and overlearns the techniques of an art so that once inculcated they may be performed with an exactness and ease of proficiency fed by inspiration. Absolute control is rarely, if ever, achievable, nor perhaps desirable, since the temptation to perfection can lead to overdetermination, yet the writer aims for mastery of the art and an ideal performance in each work. As a writer’s mastery grows, the progressive expansion and autonomy of the goal, its elusiveness as it’s grasped, make the work infinitely engaging and worthwhile.
Perfectionism, as distinct from mastery, springs from an inadequate understanding of art, from the writer’s knowledge and skills not being up to fulfilling the concept of the work, or, conversely, from the writer’s concept being unsuitable or impracticable for the art, and in either case, the writer strains to make the ideal and the embodiment of the work coincide, and the strain shows.
The notion that the work should spill effortlessly from the writer can seem attractive, if not supremely seductive and correct. Moments of careless grace are a constant aim and a great pleasure in drafting, but a reliance on them to produce excellent work and a resistance to close revision make for deluded, self-indulgent writing.
The writer in love with the immediate outpourings of his or her pen unreasonably expects the reader’s unequivocal love and interpretation of form and significance where only vague or partial articulation exists. A writer should not expect a reader to find more knowingness in a work than the writer’s own knowingness, nor should a writer be satisfied if the work can occasion only the reader’s subjective associations. The work should provide for an objective, aesthetic understanding that is closely related, if not identical, to the writer’s own understanding. The strength and worth of a work depend on deliberate artistry as much as, if not more than, the writer’s talent, desire, and inspirations.
Categories of Revision
The following summary of types of revision provides a framework for further discussion and study. It would not be possible to offer an exhaustive description of all types of revision, since they are as various and infinite as the occasions and possibilities of writing. However, in an author’s habitual work, numerous kinds of revision typically recur. These are noted in rough order from major to minor:
■ Recasting of narrative voice. In the successive draft versions of a work, the author may search for the correct diction with which to tell the story and, having found it, may need to make persistent, comprehensive efforts to focus and strengthen it.
■ Recasting of point of view. A draft written in first-person point of view may ultimately lead to a finished work told in a limited third-person or omniscient point of view. A story conceived with one main or primary point-of-view character may wind up centered on another character.
Virginia Woolf’s drafts of Mrs. Dalloway demonstrate significant, progressive changes in point of view and narrative diction. Generally these two elements go hand in hand, and a change in one necessitates a change in the other. These kinds of revisions place as much demand on an author as do major structural changes.
In any routine process of drafting and revising, a writer may expect to do a certain amount of work to correct occasional lapses that occurred in making transitions, as a result of the need to leave a passage somewhat loosely written, pending some other necessary parts of the work falling in place. However, in drafting, the writer should be wary of rationalizing an absence of transitions and an overall ambiguous, careless, or forced structure, thinking that it will all come together later. From fairly early in the development of a story, the design should have a good foundation and a definite form. The balance of the transitions in a work should be well developed as the story proceeds. Don’t leave too much to guesswork or chance as regards the causality of the story, and be aware that transitions form the essential movements from cause to effect.
■ Adjustments in point of view within scenes. When two or more characters take part in a scene, the writer may add necessary dimension by providing greater perspective on the characters from the narrative point of view and/or from the characters’ points of view on themselves and on each other.
■ Limited adjustments in narrative tone. Tone indicates attitude. Within even a moderately dexterous narrative voice, myriad tonal inflections occur. Careful revision may be required to achieve exactness in regard to an author’s attitude to characters, the characters’ attitudes to each other, and each character’s attitude to him- or herself.
■ Honing the structure, rhythm, and pacing of lines. A good deal of a writer’s effort goes into sentence making. Drama, lyric power, and timing must conspire perfectly, or as perfectly as possible.
■ Honing dialogue. The writer must catch the individual speech of characters and the dramatic impetus of each utterance. The writer must make the dialogue natural, and lifelike, though an imitation of speech. Revision may involve efforts to achieve concision and tautness in the dialogue.
■ Adjustment of sound to sense and finding the right word. Coleridge’s description of poetry as “the best words, in the best order” applies equally to imaginative prose. Word choice and the placement of words, word by word, occupy a writer’s attention with increasing degrees of intensity from draft to draft. The ripple effect, in which a single change necessitates further changes in successive parts of a work, occurs in all types of revision but no more so than at the word-to-word level that ensures the integrity of work. Included in this category are revisions to achieve clarity and precision of expression, to achieve strength or power of expression, and to provide insight and meaning.
■ Attention to images. A writer may revise to sharpen an image or to make the words convey a precise visual impression. Also, the revision may be a matter of adjusting an image so that it is not too patently symbolic but rather appears as a natural (realistic) detail. An image should work in terms of both its literal and metaphoric meanings and should contribute to the overall imagistic pattern of the story.
■ Changes made in the surface and texture of a work for the sake of naturalness. In the process of drafting and revision, an unnatural smoothness or evenness may come into the writing and the movement of the story. In such cases, a writer will need to roughen the work, going across the grain, as it were, and allowing imperfections, or nature, to show.
■ Recasting to eliminate a writer’s idiosyncrasies or self-parodies. Every writer has certain rhetorical tendencies and habits that, if overplayed, become mannered and distracting. A writer’s characteristic figures of speech, syntactical patterns, attitudes, and so on should be examined and, if they are reflexively ruling the work at any point, they should be pared back, altered, or deleted.
■ Revisions made for practical rather than for purely aesthetic reasons. These include changes made for ideological or legal reasons, or according to fashion or public taste, or changes made in order to fit a certain space, or made in the hopes of keeping a work from becoming dated.
■ Extemporaneous revisions. Changes occur simply as a matter of course in rewriting when an author freshens things as a habitual matter of staying interested in the work, having grown tired of the familiar. These revisions are sometimes for the better, though not always. Revising simply for the sake of revising may produce a flattening or deadening of the work. In some cases, an original passage or a prior revision may be preferable to the latest revision.
■ Final revisions. These include copyediting changes such as resolving unintended inconsistencies in style, correcting misspellings and grammatical errors, and refining punctuation. (Punctuation changes may be a matter of copyediting only or may involve more creative revisions to the pacing and phrasing of lines.) Other final revisions include recasting awkward constructions and removing redundant words, phrases, clichés, trite rhymes, unintentional puns, and double meanings.
Much of the work of revision involves physical alterations—deletions, substitutions, insertions, and rearrangements—made on manuscripts. However, each physical alteration is prompted by a specific idea—a practical or aesthetic concern—related to bringing the work to its optimal form.
Each writer develops a uniquely personal process of drafting and revising. One writer may draft slowly, weighing each word and revising each line many times before going to the next line, whereas another may draft rapidly and revise equally rapidly through numerous drafts. There is no one correct method. Part of the pleasure of writing is the author’s creation of his or her own process—that is to say, doing the work is in itself as rewarding as finishing the work.
In essence, writing is revision. What separates merely talented writers from truly accomplished ones is the successful pursuit of revision. And while each writer has personal methods of drafting and revision, there are general stages of revision that most writers practice, whether deliberately or semiconsciously.
Drafting and revision typically proceed across four basic stages: Following an inspiration for a work, a writer usually begins by establishing a form for the work, sketching it out and assaying a beginning, and then across a draft, or drafts, he or she accumulates the substance of the work. After the draft reaches a critical mass, or an approximate degree of completeness, the author revises to achieve correctness in every element. Progressive stages of revision eliminate incidence in favor of essence.
At the outset of a work, a writer may not know the exact nature or quality of the inspiration that impels the work. Whether the inspiration is major or minor and what the work means are questions that sometimes become clear only in the process of revision. A writer rarely knows with certainty what he or she can make until the work has been brought to a fairly high degree of realization.
During a writer’s apprenticeship, he or she will typically produce works in which talent is apparent while accomplishment is relatively modest. As the writer approaches the end of apprenticeship, early drafts of some works will have sufficient worth to bear revision and improvement according to the writer’s increased knowledge, while early drafts of other works will not merit the writer’s continued scrutiny and revision. The ability to determine which works deserve the writer’s persistence, and how much effort to give them, and which works to leave as they are, is a mark of mastery.
Across a lifetime of work, a writer’s concentration on revision will yield some efficiency of labor. The writer’s methods of revision will become, if not surer and more sophisticated in terms of an ideal process, then at least more suited to the nature of the writer’s work. And the writer who has so deepened his or her art by virtue of revision as to understand thoroughly the nature his or her gifts and the quality of his or her work may find that less revision is needed than in the early and middle years of writing, or that the difficulty of revision is occasioned by the writer’s increased ambition and capacity rather than a repeated struggle with old limitations. Toward the end of a great writer’s productive life, when energy and time for strenuous revision no longer exists, the habit of art, born of revision and the excellence it has engendered, provides for continued fluency, beauty of expression, renewed simplicity, and momentum. But if a writer does not intend a long career with absolute devotion to the work, or, perhaps intending it, finds that fate or circumstance limits the goal, revision is the means of making good on whatever promise can realistically be achieved.