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10.3: Revision, Version 1

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    The fantasy\(^{78}\) that good writers summon forth beautiful, lean, yet intricate sentences onto a page without sweating is an unhealthy fiction, and it is wrong. What writers need is revision. Novice writers, experienced writers, all writers. Anyone interested in writing clearer, stronger, more persuasive and passionate prose, even those of us who are procrastinators panicking because we need to get a project finished or a paper written and it’s 2:00 a.m. the night before our deadline—writers need revision because revision is not a discrete step. Revision is not the thing writers do when they’re done writing. Revision is the writing.

    It’s important to keep in mind I’m not talking about revision as proofreading or copy editing; no amount of grammatical, spelling, and style corrections transforms a piece of writing like focused attention to fundamental questions about purpose, evidence, and organization. That, to me, is revision: the heavy lifting of working through why I’m writing, who I’m writing for, and how I structure writing logically and effectively.

    My writing students are usually relieved to hear that published authors often find writing just as fraught as they do. Like first-year college students, people paid to write—the journalists and the novelists and the technical writers—more often than not despair at the difference between what’s in their heads and hearts and what ends up on the page the first time around. The professionals are just a little better at waiting things out, pushing through what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts” and all the ones that follow, the revision of a tenth and a thirteenth and a twenty-third draft. I show a YouTube video by Tim Weninger, a computer scientist and engineer at the University of Notre Dame. In the video, Weninger stitches together his revisions of a research paper. In my class, we play a game, guessing how many revisions Weninger did. The answer—463!—almost always surprises them. It still sometimes surprises me. And sure, some of those revisions are small, fiddly changes. But most of the time, even watching this quickly on classroom monitors, my students notice Weninger aims for the jugular in his writing. He’s after wholesale overhaul of his argument and of his larger work.

    However, talking about revision in terms of numbers of drafts implies that all writing, all writers, and all revision work one way: hit your target draft number, like your daily Fitbit goals, and you magically get good writing. But more revision isn’t necessarily better. Effective revising isn’t making changes for the sake of change, but instead making smarter changes. And professional writers—practiced writers—have this awareness even if they aren’t aware of it. In Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, he calls this instinct the ideal reader: an imagined person a writer knows and trusts but rewrites in response to, a kind of collaborative dance between writer and reader. To writers, the act of writing is an act of thinking. One writer in a landmark study of comparing the habits of experienced writers to those of novices called their first drafts “the kernel.” If you’re someone like me who is constantly struggling to demystify this complex cognitive thing we humans do, that metaphor of writing as a seed is revelatory. Revision is not a sign of weakness or inexperienced or poor writing. It is the writing. The more writers push through chaos to get to the good stuff, the more they revise. The more writers revise, whether that be the keystrokes they sweat in front of a blinking, demanding cursor or the unofficial revising they do in our heads when they’re showering or driving or running, the more the ideal reader becomes a part of their craft and muscle memory, of who they are as writers, so at some point they may not know where the writing stops and the revision begins.

    \(^{78}\)Snippet from = Giovanelli, Laura. “Strong Writing and Writers Don’t Need Revision.” Bad Ideas About Writing. Edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Libraries, Digital Publishing Institute, 2017. CC-BY.

    This page titled 10.3: Revision, Version 1 is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sybil Priebe (Independent Published) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.