Wednesday, June 13, 2012

33. Active revision

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.

woman at typewriter

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. 


  1. I love it when someone uncovers the truth in a word that has been lost. Re-vision indeed!

  2. Thanks. It's not original with me, but the first time I heard it I knew I would need to use it.

  3. I of course learned to write longhand (in the 1960s), and for years I did all my writing longhand, using the typewriter to produce final drafts for most things. In the 1980s I moved to word processing. Today I would not be able to write long papers longhand as I once did, and I do all my revision on the computer. Real editing takes concentration, but it actually is more efficient and physically easier. Today I am a better writer than I was in 1980. As a professional nonfiction writer I am happy to provide a writing sample and match it against anyone else for effective writing. So I disagree with the argument made in the piece, although I also like the rediscovery of the original meaning of re-vision.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You may very well be right. It may also be that because you learned to write and to edit using the old methods you have a better grasp of both than people who grew up only using word processors. This is something I've been interested in for a long time, and it is still true that a lot of the writing that I see these days seems very poorly written and/or edited.

  5. Kathryn, when I am writing, and I get stuck with a sentence that just doesn't feel right, but I can't quite put my finger on why, I will diagram the sentence - how many people under 50 even know how to do that today?

  6. Editing is another matter entirely. I regularly review (and edit) papers for publication in professional journals. I am constantly amazed at how poorly well educated people write. Even more I am struck by the poor editing I see coming from journal editors and reviewers. Some journals have asked me to review fairly long papers with a deadline only a week away. These I routinely refuse, unless there is some overwhelming reason why I should do it for them. Editing is a very rare skill. To be able to help clarify logic and presentation while still preserving some of the author's own style can be tricky. Of course, with purely scientific writing, it is somewhat easier, since the simpler and more straightforward the writing is the better. I could not ever edit fiction. Those who have been at the receiving end of my review pencil learn to fear the two word phrase: "Purple Prose".

    As to actually writing my own work, I too now use the computer exclusively, after having learned to write the old way in the 50s and 50s. But I write in a different way than most people to whom I have talked. I write my papers, and revise them, in my head, sometimes over a several month period. When I'm finally ready to write, it flows through my fingers to the keyboard. I do a quick review for spelling or typos, and it is ready to go to the reviewers. I don't mean to imply that it is an easy or superficial process - it is not. I literally will revise a paper a dozen times in my head. I actually see the pages in my mind. It isn't something I'd ever recommend to a student or to anyone else for that matter. I suspect I am able to do it that way today because I learned the hard way - outlines, half-paragraphs, diagraming sentences, all of that. Of course, having a grandfather who was an old-school high school English teacher, and an aunt and uncle who are descriptive linguists didn't hurt, either.

  7. Thanks for posting this, Richard. I'm not sure that most young people even know what diagramming is... partly, I think, because classes have grown so large and teachers barely have time to keep up with all the standardized tests they are required to give. But I also know there is a lot of good writing out there....

  8. I am the queen of revision Kathryn, and proof that you can have too much of a good thing. Until a deadline pries copy from my cold clammy hands, I keep tweaking. But I completely agree. I work on printouts 90 percent and only trust printouts for actually improving my work. (As opposed to just changing it.) I like to see it looking as close to a page of printed type as possible. Not trying to one up you but I think I've revised articles and chapters 10 times on occasion :) Maybe I need a 12-step programme. But yes, for rhythm, flow etc. printouts every time. (Handwriting, 3 lines is my max.)Physically editing on the computer once it's all marked up is of course very efficient and easy.