Writers on Revising

Understand the role of revision in the lives of successful writers.

Our fast-paced, consumer-driven society is geared to offer a remarkable number of choices in nanoseconds. If the fast-food chain doesn’t deliver lunch within sixty seconds, it’s free. With a push of a button, people who live in large metropolitan areas can run through as many as 100 different channels on cable television.

Clearly, we live in an “information society,” an age of smooth, mass-market packaging. We are bombarded with the polished printed word. Newspapers, magazines, junk mail, and interoffice
memos surround us like mosquitoes on a hot summer night, buzzing, “Buy me, read me, believe in me.” Americans spend over three months of their lives just opening and discarding all of the junk mail stuffed into their mailboxes, 75 percent of which they don’t read. Every minute two scientific papers are published, not to mention articles in the humanities, social sciences, and popular press. Gifted (and not-so-gifted) authors spend months polishing proposals and sales letters and then–with the use of photocopiers, fax machines, and computer modems–they send out copies in mass numbers.

What Are Students’ Revising Practices?

The fast pace of our society often seems contrary to the reflective, introspective tone that we must adopt when we are trying to develop and write about ideas. And, perhaps because they are so accustomed to seeing polished final drafts, many students expect to create similar texts with little effort.

Many students are unaware of the crucial role revision plays in many professional writers’ work. Kelli Sorrentino, an undergraduate student, writes:

When I first learned about revision in class, it was like some great revelation to me, for some reason. I think I had some sort of mistaken notion about leaving pieces of work “just as they came to me.” I believed that there was something magical about inspiration. But now that I’ve learned to look at my work more critically, I realize that I can improve on all of my so-called “inspired ideas.” Revising pieces constantly has taught me to improve on inspiration and when l really got into it, it proved to be a godsend. Now I really enjoy picking my writing apart because I’ve learned that this allows me to produce better writing than I’ve ever done before.

Students whose works are receiving low grades or befuddled looks from readers may have unreasonable expectations. Unlike professionals, they may assume they should write an essay in just two or three drafts. In contrast, experienced, professional writers understand that revision is crucial to successful writing.

Rather than viewing revision as a form of punishment or merely as an act of polishing ideas, professional writers consider revision to be an opportunity to develop their thinking—as an opportunity to be creative. When facing tough writing assignments, they rarely expect to produce a final copy after writing just one or two drafts. Comforted by the knowledge that few people express their ideas perfectly without practice, they expect to revise. They understand that revision is an inevitable step in the process of making meaning. For example, James Michener writes:

Getting words on paper is difficult. Nothing I write is good enough in the first draft, not even personal letters. Important work must he written over and over—up to six or seven times.

Perhaps the most pernicious assumption that inexperienced writers make is that polished, A-level essays are the products of an inspired mind, of “a born writer.” Just as non-electricians tend to perceive electricity as a form of magic, inexperienced writers tend to be mystified by the creative process. As Lafcadio Hearn argued in his lectures at Tokyo University between 1896 and 1902, many novice writers wrongly assume that they should wait to be inspired before writing:

Nothing has been more productive of injury to young literary students than those stories, or legends, about great writers having written great books in a very short time. They suggest what must be in a million cases impossible, as a common possibility. It is much more valuable to remember that Gray passed fourteen years in correcting and improving a single poem, and that no great poem or book, as we now have the text, represents the first form [of] the text.

Almost everything composed by Tennyson was changed and changed and changed again, to such an extent that in almost every edition the test differed. Above all things do not imagine that any good work can be done without immense pains.

What Are Professional Writers’ Revising Practices?

Successful writers look and look again at their manuscripts because they know that this constant reworking is one of the most effective ways to discover what they want to say and to find out what they have learned by writing:

  • “Think before you speak, is criticism’s motto; speak before you think is creation’s.”-E.M. Forster
  • “I start my work by asking a question and then try to answer it.”Mary Lee Settle
  • “To rewrite ten times is not unusual. Oh, bother the mess, mark them as much as you like; what else are they for? Mark everything that strikes you. I may consider a thing forty-nine times; but if you consider it, it will be considered 50 times, and a line 50 times considered is 2 percent better than a line 49 times considered. And it is the final 2 percent that makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity.”George Bernard Shaw
  • “I’m working on something. I don’t know exactly what.” Eudora Welty
  • “Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what one is saying.” John Updike
  • “I mean that generally the more you write–the more times you write it–the better the piece is.” Calvin Trillin
  • “We write out what we don’t know about what we know.”Grace Paley
  • “There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I’m greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed.” –John Kenneth Galbraith
  • “A young author is tempted to leave anything he has written through fear of not having enough to say if he goes cutting out too freely. But it is easier to be long than short. Think of and look at your work as though it were done by your enemy. If you look at it to admire it you are lost. If we look at it to see where it is wrong, we shall see this and make it righter. If we look at it to see where it is right, we shall see this and not make it righter.”Samuel Butler
  • “lt’s always taken me a long time to finish poems. When I was in my twenties I found poems taking six months to a year, maybe fifty drafts or so. Now I am going over two hundred drafts regularly, working on things four or five years and longer; too long! I wish I did not take so long.”Donald Hall
  • “I write out of ignorance. I write about the things I don’t have any resolutions for, and when I’m finished, I think I know a little bit more about it. I don’t write out of what I know. It’s what I don’t know that stimulates me.”Toni Morrison