On Revision

I’ve lately been chewing on “revision.” Two weeks ago in my freshman composition class, I initiated a discussion of students’ writing processes, also bringing up that very word. Two weeks ago in my creative writing class, we read and discussed Anne Lamott’s classic essay, “Shitty First Drafts.” Some of my students discovered a revolutionary approach to writing.

In that beautiful piece, Lamott argues that writers would do well do write first drafts in which they do not restrain themselves. Writers must allow themselves to pursue whichever directions, unconcerned about the end result. She urges writers to imagine their critics as mice and place them in a jar so that they will not distract writers in that important stage of completing a first draft.

A while back I touched on some ideas related to the writing process (in a post on my university’s faculty blog), but I am returning to revision. My creative writing students have asked (and will keep asking), “so how do you know when a piece is finished? How do you know when it doesn’t need more revision?” Those are difficult questions that I answer with my common answer, “it depends.” An example might serve best.

Last Friday morning at an academic conference, I read an original (and as yet-unpublished) short story: a part of my short-story cycle that was my PhD dissertation. I wrote the first draft in March 2010. In the time since, it has undergone various revisions and “versions.” The draft as I read it Friday clocked in at just under 3,400 words. Another version of the story, with a different direction and ending and overall tone, clocked in at 6,500 words.

While I read the story to the audience, I felt as though it was working well, but 5 1/2 years later, I still wasn’t sure. Immediately after I finished reading it, I thought, “I need to cut the first 1/3 of the story, the opening scene.” In the time since then, and having shared my thoughts with my wife who has read the various versions, I received five verbal affirmations of the story from conference participants (fellow writers themselves), and even an email from another participant (sent near midnight).

When is the story done? A good question. Paul Valery quipped the poem is never finished but only abandoned. I like that idea (minus the connotation of abandonment).

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