There’s no question that revising is the most important part of writing. But I believe that few writers today truly revise. Because we use word processing technology, we no longer go to the root of the word “revision” and literally re-see our work.
In a previous post I mentioned that I wrote and revised Pandora’s Genes on a typewriter. In fact, I went through at least six complete versions of the novel—around 100,000 words. After typing, I made changes in pen or pencil and retyped again.
Something I noticed while working was that EVERY TIME I retyped a page, section, or chapter, I made changes that neither I nor an editor had penciled in. Some of these changes were as simple as fixing a typo nobody had previously noticed, but more often they were subtle changes of word choice, for accuracy or rhythm. Sometimes they were cuts, to avoid wordiness. Sometimes I added a sentence or two, for clarity or verisimilitude.
Let me repeat: This sort of change went on EVERY TIME I retyped.
I used to joke that my fingers were smarter than my brain, and there is a grain of truth in this. I think that in some way the fingers access the subconscious—the part of the brain that does most of the work—in a more direct way than the thinking brain does.
In a recent interview in the New York Times, the novelist John Irving says that he writes in longhand, and also revises in longhand. He had previously fed his original copy into a typewriter for subsequent drafts, but prefers the slower approach of longhand. I too slow myself down with longhand, sometimes, even today, when I am confronted with a particularly difficult passage.
Those who write only on word processors never give themselves a chance to slow down, or to re-see their work. Does that mean that today’s published prose is less elegant than that of only twenty years ago?
I’m not sure that question has a definitive answer. In my current work on the sequel to the two Pandora’s books, I’m working from a large stack of handwritten pages I wrote several years ago and then forgot about. I am feeding them into my computer, one page at a time, much as I used to do in the old days. I am editing as I go. In a future post I’ll show some examples of how that is working out.