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Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists – How self-editing became the first commandment of literature

30 June 2013

From The Boston Globe:

IT’S TOUGH to get a room full of writers to agree on anything—the best wine, the best Shakespeare play, the best time of day to work. Perhaps the only belief that today’s writers share is that to produce good writing, you have to revise.

This principle appears everywhere—in classrooms, in newsrooms, in writing guides, and especially in author interviews. “I’ve done as many as 20 or 30 drafts of a story,” Raymond Carver once told The Paris Review. “Never less than 10 or 12 drafts.” Joyce Carol Oates, who is so prolific she leaves other authors shaking their heads, has said: “I revise all the time, every day.”

. . . .

It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest authors have been history’s greatest revisers. But that wasn’t always how it worked. Until about a century ago, according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions.

Then something changed. In a new book, “The Work of Revision,” Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century. It was only under Modernist luminaries like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf that the practice came to seem truly essential to creating good literature.

. . . .

In the age of Shakespeare and Milton, paper was an expensive luxury; blotting out a few lines was one thing, but producing draft after draft would have been quite another. Writers didn’t get to revise during the publishing process, either. Printing was slow and messy, and in the rare case a writer got to see a proof of his work—that is, a printed sample of the text, laid out like a book—he had to travel in person to a publishing center like London.

All of these factors suggest that revision was not something that happened on the page. Indeed, during the 19th century, the Romantics made resisting revision a virtue. The best literature, they believed, flowed from spontaneous and organic creative acts. “I am like the tyger (in poesy),” Lord Byron wrote in a letter. “If I miss my first spring—I go growling back to my Jungle. There is no second. I can’t correct.”

Link to the rest at The Boston Globe and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Writing Advice

31 Comments to “Revising your writing again? Blame the Modernists – How self-editing became the first commandment of literature”

  1. I could never do this. Spend weeks and weeks revising. I write the first draft, read it aloud and fix what needs fixing, ship it off to my first reader, make any required changes, then it’s off to market or the editor.

  2. I wonder what these writers mean when they use terms like redrafting? I have a hard time believing someone is completely redrafting the same story 20 or 30 times. I suspect, because there’s a knee jerk reaction in some circles to writers editing their own work, some have taken to describing the process as redrafting or revising. Calling it editing could create an unnecessary reaction. If I read through a story, change a few things around, is that redrafting? I could see back when typewriters were in common use, the entire manuscript would need retyping to make changes, so in that context it would make sense. But that hasn’t been the case since wordprocessors went mainstream in the early ’80s. I think, today, we see basic editing work described as redrafting. Sounds like more work than it really is and avoids any stigma attached to the self-editing writer, something every writer does while repeatedly being told we’re incapable of the task.

    • I know of at least one author whose process is, indeed, to write a draft, then write another draft that is closer to what she wanted, and so on until she gets a final draft she’s happy with. I think it’s usually 3-4 of these.

      On my Extremely Large Duology (now rather a bit smaller, actually), I took a chainsaw and tried to excise all the chapters that were not absolutely necessary, and then added as needed, minimalisticly*, to fill in what I’d chopped. That’s… a pretty heavy edit; I suppose it could be called “re-drafting”?

      On my Much Shorter Books — both my first-ever one, and the one after the Extremely Large Duology — I managed to get a less-complex set of personalities + situation, and they mostly got copy-editing. (Well, on the One After The Duology, I had to write a whole epilogue-thing because spouse insisted that there needed to be some loose-end-tieups, but I dunno if that counts.)

      I do suspect that “redrafting” is a flexible word, that just about any author might pick up and use if they aren’t a “write it, copy-edit it, ship it” kind of person.

      *It probably wasn’t a word before, but it’s gonna be now.

    • The idea that you can’t edit your own work has a lot less to do with your capability – like saying that you need a “real” professional to do it – and a lot more with how your mental image of the story and your familiarity with it can hide from you what is actually on the paper. That’s why when people like Orson Scott Card talk about alpha/beta readers, they say not to tell the reader anything about the story beforehand, so as not to bias their experience.

    • As Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith use the term, redrafting is what it sounds like: start over and draft the story again without reference to what you wrote the first time. Feel free to change anything — setting, characters, etc.

      As I recall, Dean has “redrafted” his Magic Jukebox story something like 20 or 30 times … and sold every version. After all, nobody says you have to discard the first finished* draft.

      *(Specified to differentiate from unfinished drafts. My first draft for a novel is like the frame for a house: you can tell what it’s going to look like, but it ain’t finished.)

  3. This post seems to have a strange angle of “revising is bad” to it. You can easily remove the word “revise” and call the entire creative experience a process instead. I write from a core idea and change things that don’t make sense later. According to this article, I’m revising constantly, but for me it’s all about capturing the idea/feeling before it escapes me. When I’m writing I don’t worry about anything else but getting the words on the page. When I’m revising I can take my time and clean things up. I don’t have to worry about interrupting my flow. I feel fortunate to live in an age where the technology allows that. If I had to write everything by hand I’d have a very different process, one that I would enjoy a lot less.

    • I think the article is just pushing back against the sort of people who direct all young authors to throw away their first and second drafts (and start again from scratch, yuck) before even beginning to say a novel is a novel. In real life, some people revise a lot, some a little, and some publish amazing first drafts. That’s life.

      The article is probably minimizing the effect of old authors reading their works out loud to friends or family; to having the author, friends, or family copy out fair copies for submission; or to having Milton’s daughter (after he went blind) transcribing his poetry from his recital to her. Also, there was such a thing as composing in one’s head and then revising in one’s head, in many pre-modern times. This was pretty much why the Art of Memory existed: organized memory that was useful for making speeches, but also for writing books.

      However, with papyrus cheap, many Roman authors had the problem of friends copying out and distributing their early drafts before a work was even finished, much less revised and corrected. St. Augustine and St. Jerome both talk about this problem.

  4. I don’t revise, I change my mind.

  5. Found this on Mark Twain:

    Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, was not exactly a cooperative subject. His adventurous, perhaps even “postmodern” writing style sometimes flummoxed the editors. Writing in Granta, one of them, Benjamin Griffin, describes a particular section of the “Autobiography” as “one of the most intractable editing tasks I ever came across.” In that section, called “Private History of a Manuscript That Came to Grief,” Twain includes the emendations of a fictional editor, and his corrections of those emendations. “We had to edit Clemens’s editing of the editor’s editing,” Griffin recalls. “I can feel the wind of the wing of madness tousling my hair, just remembering it.”



    • I recall an anecdote — not sure if it’s true — about Twain receiving a letter from an editor complaining that Twain had left out lots of commas in his manuscript. In response, Twain sent the editor a page of commas, and told him to put them where he thought they should go in the manuscript.

  6. I edit. And I revise. Several times. Thank God it’s easy these days.

    As for authors not doing this in the past: I have seen many, many copies of original ms. pages by famous writers that were liberally amended, crossed out, written over, and covered with marginal notes. Of course they revised.

  7. I do think the literary set takes a lot of pride in making writing really hard. I revise scenes only when the story needs it. I revise to first reader suggestions if they make sense to me. I might do one line-editing pass to get the worst offenders in terms of wordiness, imprecise verbs, unnecessary adverbs, etc., but thats about it. BUT i write pretty precisely to begin with, and i outline. A lot of my revising happens before i put words down.

    • But Lily, if you don’t struggle, it isn’t art!

      • Lol that only works on people trying to write art. I just want to make people smile. Nice use of irony, though. 🙂

        Incidentally, I grew up with a mother who is an artist – a painter. She might struggle to sit down and actually get some work done, but for her making a line go where she wants it to go and one watercolor shade fade gracefully into another is effortless. And her artwork is amazing, at least in my eyes. But it’s representational, therefore “less than”; and, you know, the only work of hers that ever got first place at the county fair show was basically an abstract doodle that started as her practicing shapes and mixing colors, that she fleshed out with some random boobs and obviously dead animals. First place! It’s so deep! I don’t know what it means but I’m too embarrassed to admit it, so – it MUST be art! We had a grand laugh over that one.

        • I wonder if abstract/surreal “works” for people when it mimics some of their more confusing dreams — where you wake up, and you know there was some Hugely Deep Meaning, but you forget what it was.

          (Or, in my case, where I wake up going, “I MUST REMEMBER THAT PLOT! I was writing it down! …in the dream. WHERE IS MY DREAM PAPER, AUGH!”)

    • I’ve always thought the whole outliner/organic war was stupid. “I revise before I write!” versus “I revise after I write!” Yes, clearly one way is far superior to the other.

  8. suburbanbanshee

    Oh, and then there’s the medieval Liquid Paper (scratching off mistakes and writing over them) and the medieval Post-It note (IIRC, little tags of parchment with revisions written on it, sewn into the book’s binding or glued onto the book’s pages).

    But the medieval/ancient word processor was the wax tablet “notebook” (useful for composition or taking dictation) or even in some cases, the sand table. And the really really ancient world had clay tablets, beechbark, scraps of bone for scribbling….

    Yeah, revision is ancient.

  9. Perhaps the only belief that today’s writers share is that to produce good writing, you have to revise.

    Where’s this author been? I’ve heard people say exactly the opposite. Of course, depends on what he means by “revise” and “good writing.” Is fixing a typo revising? Does fixing a typo result in better writing, or simply making it more comprehensible?

    The statement lacked gravitas. 😉

  10. IMHO
    There is no such thing as self-editing. Editors edit, writers revise. Calling it ‘self-editing’implies that the writer doesn’t need an editor, which is not a good thing to be implying.

    Personally, I have no problem with printing something out, deleting the original file and then typing it all back in again. I’m a pantser, part of the my first-draft process is the relaxed attitude of ‘I’m going to revise this anyway’. So I write it, I revise it on screen — to sort any plot or character problems that arise out of the pantsing process — and then (if needed, it isn’t always necessary) I print it out, delete it, and type it back in. Then I send it to my editors.

    I type it back in for flow and because it is quicker than word-processor fiddling. It is easy to leave a not-quite-right sentence in place when revising on screen, because changing the sentence will require changing the entire paragraph (sometimes). But if you are retyping the whole thing, then changing the sentence, the paragraph, or even the entire scene is no hardship at all, because you are typing it all (every word) back in anyway.

    Also, being a pantser, I don’t really know who my characters are at the beginning of the first draft. Hell, I don’t even know what the story is about at the beginning of the first draft. By retyping (if needed, after structural revisions)I can rework everything, like foreshadowing, character interactions, etc, as I retype.

    Hell of a lot easier than trying to find places to slot bits in on the screen without wrecking the flow of a scene.

    All IMHO, YMMMV, every writer is different and discovers a process that works for them.

    • Well I don’t know about that… if I’m going back and making sure the story elements are in place, making sure everything sounds the way I want, that’s revision, but if I’m happy with the story and just need to clean it up, like checking for confusing sentences and spelling, consistency of detail, that’s editing. Most types of editing are really about fixing mistakes.

  11. I am so happy to read the comments after reading the article. My first work was supposed to go to the copy-editor this week but I’m revising again. I agree with Barbara in that I change my mind about some things. The character needed more of a reason to do what he did and I needed another woman so I had to rewrite a male character. I ended up starting those scenes from scratch. This is the first time I’ve come this far with my fiction writing and it’s way more than I anticipated. It’s very exciting and challenging! I feel like the revisions are making the story better. I used to be so pleased with my first drafts because I can really turn a phrase but a good story is more than that. I don’t love revising but I believe, at this point in my career, that I benefit from the task.

  12. So, this:

    “….according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions”.

    Nice to not name your sources. Who are these various biographers and critics (?), and how could they possibly know what went on hundreds of years ago?

    I’m totally with L.J. Parker. Of course authors revised. I think there will be a few genius writers born on this Earth who may not have to, but they are the exception. Very few of us can put perfection on the page on the first or even the second try.

    Revising and editing nowadays are getting a bad name. I suspect this is a part of the liberation of the writer from the Publisher. A strike for freedom – freedom from editors and the idea that an outside force (Publishers) will tell you when your work is finished.

    Although I’m all for freedom and author determination, I think this is a misdirection. Editing is not something ‘owned’ by traditional publishing – it is something necessary when writers want to learn their art. I think editing is a huge part of being a writer, and how most writers improve their skill. Honing your craft is really important.

    • Terrence O'Brien

      I’d say nothing but the final product matters. Who cares what the production process is?

      • I’d say nothing but the final product matters.

        Agreed, but:

        Who cares what the production process is?

        Someone who wants to improve their process. If I can shave off a week or a month or a year by changing my process, or end up with a greatly improved final product likewise, then I care. Mind, if I were only ever expecting to produce but a single product, it probably wouldn’t matter.

    • But Mira, isn’t it the case that no one puts perfection down even on the 100th draft? Isn’t there the equal danger, as Dean points out, of editing one’s voice out of your work if you revise too much? Also, wouldn’t it be true that a writer, after one million words of practice, hits a lot closer to that “perfect” first draft than they do on their first few novels?

      Personally, if I see an issue like an “As you know, Bob” dialog, I’ll fix it. If a beta reader notices something, and I agree with it, I’ll fix it. But if the goal is perfection, I can revise until Hell freezes over and not get there. No writer could.

      I like Heinlein’s rule, not to revise except to editorial demand. Problem for the self-publisher is there is no editor who is going to *buy* your work. You can hire an editor, but it isn’t the same. In the traditional model you’re selling the story to an editor. Self-published, to readers. Readers aren’t going to say, “I’ve read your work. If you fix this on page 5 and this on page 96, then I’ll pay you for the story.”

      That means self-pubishers have a little more need to revise than traditionally published writers, as far as final quality product goes. By revise, I’m not talking about cleaning up typos and grammar issues. That should be done no matter the situation. Rather, addressing story/character issues.

      The question about revision is always when is it enough? When is it ever “done”? Because perfection is never achieved, that seems to be a nebulous line. And when do revisions end up doing more damage than good? Seems there are different answers to those questions as their are writers.

      • @ R.L. – I think your point about losing voice through over-editing is really well-taken. And I also think you’re right that every writer finds their way with this.

        For me, I definintely edited my ‘voice’ out of some early works. But from that – over time I learned not to do it. So, I think learning when to leave stuff alone and when to change it is part of our craft – it’s something writers can learn over time. At least it was for me….

        Of course I agree that doing this in concert with a dynamite editor is optimal.

  13. It’s nice to have something affirmed that I kinda always figured. Some “teacher” decided you on this idea of needing to revise.

    Course, it gives the teacher something to do, too, doesn’t it?

    Gives them a power over a student.

    Sets them up for ‘listening’ to what a publisher tells them to do.

    Sells books too.

    All established teaching appears to be a kind of cult/religion. And the problem with that is you’re being taught in a realm where creativity is supposed to lead.

    Not conforming.

    Long live the internet. And writers who don’t HAVE a degree of any sort. *grin* Just a love of an experience they wish to share.


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