Revision is not editing. Not even close.
It took me years to get comfortable with the revision process of writing. And then it took me a bit more time after that to appreciate it as its own practice and art.
I remembered this when I talked to a friend of mine over the weekend. She is the programming director of WriteSpace in Houston and as we talked she reminded me that revision is something that is a shadow in the writing world. This process of re-envision a piece is a mystery.
And it’s true. Even in my MFA program, and I suspect in most, the emphasis was on creation and not so much revision. Sometimes I feel that those in writing programs — MFA, BFA, independent programs, etc. — should add a couple of weeks of revision boot camp.
The number one lesson to be taught: revision is different than editing, which is a different process entirely. One process dares to look at a creative piece for what it is saying about the world while the other seeks to make that message clearer through the grammar conventions.
Editing aside, which is important and it’s own animal, revision goes beyond simple decisions of word choice and images. It’s knowing, listening, and being open to what the piece is trying to say. In essence, it answers one of my favorite questions to ask writers and those who study writing:
What are you (or the piece) having a conversation with?
It’s that question that guides the revision process.
So, I’m going to share my revision process here on a recent piece I worked on about my mom. This particular piece started off as a post I wanted to write for Medium but grew into an essay. I kept working on it until I felt all the pieces I needed in the essay were there. I’ve had this sitting in my files for a couple of weeks and so I went back to see what I had.
When I say all the piece of the essay, I mean all the tidbits I want to include in what I think will be the overall theme, lesson, idea, etc. After my process I know I’ll either expand those sections, rework them, add more, or just delete them. However, it’s important to me to get the piece to the point where I don’t have anything to add and I can let it breathe for a bit.
Yes, sometimes writing is like wine.
Starting the Process
The basic definition of revision is to re-envision something … to take it out of the form you thought or wish it was and sculpt it into what it is or wants to be.
That can not be done without walking away from it for awhile.
The revision process is an ego free zone. It’s not about you, dear writer. It’s about what is on the page
What is bubbling up?
What are the patterns that are in the piece? Is there a theme or a motif happening? What is being mentioned repeatedly either directly or indirectly?
If you have to boil that entire piece down to one, singular, short statement — what would it be?
Is there a theme emerging. Is the piece putting two things or ideas in juxtaposition. Meaning are two different ideas, by being in close proximity, creating a point of view.
This is where you have to make sure that you keep your ego in check. You may think that you have created a piece about a topic but what’s on the page is about something else. Follow the rabbit hole to see where it leads.
At this step, I like to do a couple of things.
The first, I write any themes I see emerging in the margins. Themes, as you learned in school, are things like man vs nature, man vs man, etc.
In the example above, one of the themes I identified was faith vs illness. This is what I kept seeing in different ways in the piece. I started writing about my mom and a tradition we keep in my household around Christmas time and how this time, it was different because of the cancer remission. This theme tracks. It wasn’t one I set out to write specifically but it popped up in my word choice, my descriptions, and my exposition.
Another technique I used is writing keywords.
As I read, I would write words that would pop up in my head that I noticed. These are not phrases like the theme exercise and not necessarily words that I am using (I’ll talk about word choice, i.e. diction in a minute). These are key words that reflect what is being said.
For the piece I’m revising the words mystical, magic, faith, and love popped up.
Push and Pull
So what are you going to do with all this info?
You’re going to look at the moments in the piece and see where you an push the theme a bit more and where you pull back.
This push and pull thing gets easier the more you do it and the more experience you have writing (as does anything else). So, you’ll have to use your best judgement.
If you push too much the piece can be sappy or heavy or difficult to read.
If you pull too much you may not have the connection with the reader you need.
That’s why, if you’re starting or haven’t done this technique, you’ll need to do this a couple of times until you get it. This is very much like a sculptor chiseling away at marble for a bit and then standing back to see progress. You’ll know if the piece needs more push and where and when you’ll need to pull back.
This part has no exact science, you just have to chisel away bit by bit.
Ask the hard questions:
Here’s some hard questions to ask:
What is the actual thing this is trying to say? How is it saying it? And where can I expand that?
Is this the form it needs to be in? (Important for writers of several disciplines). Is this more effective as a poem? A narrative essay? A hermit crab essay? A PowerPoint? (kidding…but am I?)
What is not working? (Cut it immediately)
What doesn’t feel true to me? What does feel true to me?
What experiences — books, reading, conversations, research, documentaries, etc. — do I need to have to know this well or give context? (Context is everything.)
What the hell am I missing?
What is the next step? (There’s always a next step).
What is the next step?
For my essay, I’ll probably do this process again a couple of times until it “feels” right.
I know when I’m getting closer to “feeling right” when I start playing with the word choice, the structure of the sentences, and even the rhythm of the sentences (length, flow, pacing, etc.)
Not that any of that is editing. It’s still revision but I’m now taking a more focused look on writing technique. And I’m also taking my time. For me, this step takes the longest and it can be the best part but it can also drive me crazy.
As I tell my students, this process is an upside funnel. Revision goes from macro (big things like theme) to micro (writing technique, imagery, etc). Writing comes together in revision so most of your attention should be in that.
So that’s it! That’s part of my revision process. If you’re a writer, what is your revision process like? Share in the comment, please! I’d love to read it.
Icess Fernandez Rojas is an educator, writer, podcaster, and a former journalist. She is a graduate of Goddard College’s MFA program.
Her work has been internationally published in PANK, Queen Mobs Lit Journal, Poetry 24, Rabble Lit, Minerva Rising Literary Journal, and the Feminine Collective’s anthology Notes from Humanity. Her Houston-based story, “Happy Hunting”, was published in the Houston Noir anthology.
Her nonfiction/memoir work has appeared in Dear Hope, NBCNews.com, HuffPost and the Guardian. She is a recipient of the Owl of Minerva Award, a VONA/Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation alum, a Dos Brujas Workshop alum, and a Kimbilio Fellow. She’s currently working on her first novel and finishing her memoir, Problematic.