Faces of Revision
By Julie Hensley, Associate Professor, Bluegrass Writers Studio
I go back and forth on “required” revision. My students know this. One semester, I include a formal revision assignment, usually as a closing project, in my ENW 820 workshop; the next semester, I take it out in favor of a book review. How do you do real revision in a sixteen week course? Don’t you need to leave the file unopened on your desktop for at least that long? Don’t you need to shut all the hard copies of your manuscript in a drawer for three months or so? One of my own mentors was fond of saying that, optimally, when you come back to that poem or story, the words should no longer feel like your own. I think she was right, that the best global revision happens only with some serious distance; however, I think there are many ways to revise, not all of them global.
I’m a big proponent of “progressive” revision. When I sit down to work on a poem, story, or novel chapter, I read through from the beginning of the document, tightening and enriching language as I go. Some writers voice strong opposition to this technique, I know, and, in truth, it does slow your process. But it eases you back into the world you’re creating each time, and when you’re done, sometimes you’re actually done. Most of my stories have been crafted employing only “progressive” revision.
There are all kinds of specialized revision. When Crystal Wilkinson read at EKU’s summer creative writing conference, she spoke of “layered” revision, suggesting that an effective way to tackle revisions in a long manuscript is to address big issues one at a time—to go back through the entire manuscript, first with point of view in mind, then with tense shifting, then with grounding dialogue, and then with figurative language, etc. In working on my own novel, I have become a fan of this process, and I always highly recommend it for my thesis students.
Of course, sometimes the opposite approach is needed. Sometimes a particular section of a manuscript requires revisiting. In “block” revision, a writer might focus on reshaping just the opening scene of a story or the final stanza of a poem. “Block” revision allows us to really experiment and push one part of the story without so much commitment or sacrifice.
Consider also the varied forms of manuscript distance. Time is not the only thing that creates that necessary objectivity. Ted Kooser suggests that blinding oneself to the actual text can be important in a poem. In “blind” revision, a writer considers only the shape of the words on the page, drawing back and processing line/paragraph breaks to analyze white space absent from its accompanying textual meaning. Perhaps, an inverse form of this process exists, as well: “visual” revision. When I was a graduate student, Ron Carlson highlighted all the exposition in one of my stories and taped every page to the wall so that I could really comprehend how bottom-heavy the action was. Seeing five straight pages of yellow torn from the wall one after another (each one accompanied by an eye roll) remains my most lasting personal plot lesson. Exercises like these can be an important part of the revision process.
But sometimes—it has to be said—the only option for a piece is “reset” revision. There are times when a good story or poem is almost smothered beneath a mess of poor choices. Sometimes, it is valuable to close the file, open a new one, and go back in fresh—perhaps, beginning at a different point, writing in a different point of view, focusing on a different character, etc. The only wrong approach is refusing to revise at all.
Published on March 31, 2014