I’ve often heard it said that writing is revising, and that’s true in the sense that you’re adding layers and nuances and telling details in revision that often aren’t possible in the bustle or turmoil or excitement of a first draft. You’re making a fine wine in revision, in other words, which takes time, finesse, and sagacity.
Because of this, revision is an art that requires constant scrutiny. You can’t just muscle through a revision like you might a first draft. It needs to be a process of challenge, counterpoint, and exploration—all within the malleable structure you’ve put forth—yet I’ve found that revision can be the opposite of this. It can tend to become lazy, an exercise in reading more than an exercise in active change.
Here’s what often happens to me when I revise a piece (and I’ve heard similar tales from other writers). Author writes first draft of story. Author sits down to write second draft of story. Author reads story start to finish making editorial scritch-scratches in the margins. Author types in changes. Rinse. Repeat. Reload.
Hmmm…it’s a little bit like dancing a waltz, following the same steps over and over again, feeling the nice rhythms of the music, but unable to add the sorts of flourishes, startling details, absurd moments, etc., that make a story special.
There are a good 2,042 tips about how to revise a piece so that you’re not just pushing a plow through an already plowed row, but I’ve come to like no. 2,043.
Here it is: Instead of reading your story start to finish, don’t read it. Don’t even have the story in the room with you. Don’t have your laptop either. Your dog or cat can stay along with your preferred beverage, but that’s it.
The thing is to revise as if you’re still creating, not just refining (as important as refining is). My best moments of creativity happen when I’m not writing within a structure, but meandering—caught in a drift with only the faintest sense of purpose.
So here’s one way of doing that: I grab a few books of poetry, an art book or two, my describer’s dictionary, and I page through them randomly, with some Mingus or Sonic Youth or Calexico or Arvo Part on in the background, and think about my story through all of these influences. I drop in and out of poems, riff on a phrase or a word or whatever comes to mind.
I’m not really thinking of my story, yet I am. I’m tracing moods, dreaming, conjuring, whatever. I write little scenes, character descriptions, single words that I like. It’s all a collage, which for me is the word that defines the best sort of creativity. It’s playful. One thing layers upon another. It’s impossible to make a mistake.
And that’s the crux of a second or third draft—the tendency to want to preserve instead of explore. The curves of a creation are in place, after all, so it’s difficult to want to give them a different shape, which means that a story can tend more toward the rigidity of ossification.
I find when I work outside of the story in this manner, and especially in the slow ease of longhand, that nothing I write has to make it into the story. Still, I usually create a piquant scene or two, a more lyrical description here and there, and even figure out how to cut some of the bad stuff out.
It’s like a new, exciting kid has just moved next door and I’ve got a fun playmate. We run through the neighborhood without supervision. We feel the sweat on our bodies as if for the first time. We lose our breath from running.
I know that there will be revisions and more revisions, of course—and that sometimes it’s necessary to stay in the rut of the story for refinement’s sake, just to smooth those uneven surfaces. But this is one fun way to challenge a story, hopefully bring it to life in a way that a more workmanlike effort can’t.
On to revision tip no. 2,044, “Taking an Exotic Foreign Vacation to Revise Your Story.” I have to admit that this one is my favorite. Although 2,045 has its place: “Marrying Rich to Revise Your Story.”