revision tips

Productivity blog, Lifehack.org, has a post on Nine Tips to Productive Revision. The tips themselves are useful, I suppose, but only if you think of revision mostly in terms of editing or proofreading. Take the first tip, for instance:

Try to get what you’ve written on paper. Scanning a piece on a computer makes revision extremely difficult, even though it may seem like the more sensible process. By printing out your computer work, you’re able to get more hands-on with your writing process. For most people, it’s also much easier to look at what you’ve written on paper rather than on a screen. Things you might not be able to see on your computer can show up when you’re marking your piece up with paper and pencil.

What, exactly, are these “things you might not be able to see”? Since the author doesn’t really say, I’m guessing he has in mind grammatical and spelling errors, or stylistic infelicities. I (sort of) agree that printing things out makes it easier to catch mechanical problems along those lines, although I find that reading drafts aloud is even more effective.

The conflation of revision and proofreading is, of course, not unique to this one blog post. It’s a deeply held cultural belief. But revision isn’t just about cleaning up after yourself. The word itself means “re-seeing,” looking at your own work again, or in a different way. Good revision isn’t just fixing verb tense agreement, but actually re-thinking the purpose or scope of your writing.

With that in mind, I offer my own revision tips, framed instead as questions:

  • Why did I write this? What’s its purpose?” Having a sense of purpose is essential, even if your primary motivation is really that you just needed to write something for a school assignment. Once you’ve got a draft in front of you, don’t assume that your purpose is the same as when you started. Expect to discover, upon re-reading what you’ve written, that you ended up somewhere very different than where you began.
  • How does what I’ve written fit into that purpose?” If you’ve got stuff that doesn’t fit, chuck it. Ruthlessly. Or, rather, put it somewhere else for safe keeping, in case it eventually does make sense to include it, or you decide to write something where it would fit.
  • What else do I need?” The more refined your sense of purpose, the easier it is to answer this question. Figure out what you could be doing in your draft to contribute to its overall purpose, and then do it.

Questions like these are where I prefer to start a revision (and where I prefer my students start). Nancy Sommers made the point ages ago that it doesn’t make any sense to proofread text that you might end up rewriting or trashing. Do the radical revision first, then clean up.

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3 thoughts on “revision tips

  1. I don’t know what the authors meant either, but printing stuff out is an extremely important part of my writing process that has nothing to do with stylistic revision (though it helps with that, too, and that’s no small thing).

    Looking at something on paper changes the way I interact with it — I don’t know exactly why, but I think it partly switches my gears so that I engage with what I’ve written not as a writer trying figure out the next sentence, but as a *reader* ready to critically engage, pen in hand. And what I write with that pen feels less constrained, because it’s happening (messily) in a margin — the stakes feel lower, and it creates a kind of distance that has nothing to do with seeing typos, and everything to do with my readerly self being in dialogue with my writerly self.

    The other thing printing allows is the drawing of arrows, of circling a paragraph and drawing a big arrow pointing to the back of the page where I might draw a big flow chart or something. I think EB has written stuff about different ways to visually/spatially arrange info — and for me that kind of stuff often happens on the back of a printed draft. A final comment on materiality: revising on paper allows postures and locations for writing that don’t work very well with a computer. Lying outside in a park on a sunny day, on my stomach, for example, sometimes helps me see what I’ve written in a (ahem) different light.

    But you seem to be looking more for advice geared toward students, which is maybe a little different? As those who have seen me in action would probably note, there is precious little to recommend about my process.

    Reply
  2. Actually, in many cases revising text that’s about to be scrapped is what lets you KNOW it has to be scrapped.

    A teacher of mine, a Robert Hayden fan, showed some colleagues an I old drafts of his famous poem Monet’s Waterlilies. Objects in it constantly get mentioned, removed, placed in again, revised, and then scrapped. The final poem is only eight lines long: some earlier drafts were pages. In the end, it would seem, he found compact usefulness more important than conveying every last idea.

    By “things you can’t see,” I’m referring to quite literally everything. Down on paper, it’s easier to skim through pages and find what’s good, what’s not: on a computer, you tend to lose a sense of perspective. I’m not a fan of reading aloud: some pieces, especially more modern ones, lose a lot in the tone of the reader, which is a shame. I’ve read works of mine aloud and heard something utterly different than what I see on the page. Other friends of mine have the same problem.

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  3. RM: Oh, I agree that printing out is useful. I like the materiality of it, and I like the materiality of reading aloud. I think some of us just engage with writing more aurally than others, if that makes any sense.

    I wasn’t responding so much to the technique itself, but more to the possible flattening-out of the concept of “revision,” the conflation of global re-seeing (along the lines of your “Waterlilies” example) and local proofreading (among which I would include the “avoid cliches” advice). Perhaps I was reading into your post a mistake many students make, which is to hear the word “revise” as “edit” or “proof.”

    I think you maybe mean both, which is fine. I think the distinction between global and local revision is a useful one, though. I don’t want my students to get hung up on style when they really need to rethink the whole thing. I suspect that proofreading can lull writers into a false sense of having “fixed everything.” Better, I think, to start at the level of overall purpose, then work downward.

    J: I think you’re right, that I was thinking in terms of what I would say to students. But that raises an interesting question: is writing advice for student writers different than it is for other kinds of writers? I suspect that RM is coming more from a creative writing context. Does that affect how we read his tips?

    Oh, and I envy your process, or at least the thoroughly midwestern protestant work ethic you bring to writing.

    Reply

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