Why do We Revise?
An author’s written work is like their child. They nurture it, they care for it, and they want it to grow up to be the very best it can. That’s why when an author finishes a draft, they know it’s only the beginning. Now the real work begins, the work of revision, the work of taking something good and making it great, the work of taking something great and making it truly inspirational.
But what exactly is revision? I thought I knew.
What If I Need to Start Over?
Years ago, when I started out as a sixth grade writing teacher, I taught my students that revision means making changes to improve a piece of writing. It means crossing out a sentence here, adding in a sentence there, picking a new word to be more descriptive, or finding a new way of phrasing something for clarity. I wasn’t wrong. Revision is all those things. However, one fine sunny day, early on in my teaching career, I learned that revision can also be something else entirely.
“Skip lines when you write your first draft,” I told the class. “That way, when it’s time to revise, you can make your revisions in the spaces between the lines.”
I felt very clever having figured out this trick, and the plan seemed to work fine, until we were about halfway through revision time and Angel raised her hand from the back of the classroom.
“What if I need to start over?” she asked, holding up her draft with dark black lines drawn through every word she’d written. “Should I just write my new version in the spaces between the lines?”
My heart pounded. I hadn’t thought of that.
“Uh . . . sure,” I sputtered.
Another student, Trisha, shot her hand in the air without missing a beat. “Mr. Belson,” she said, “can’t you just give Angel a new sheet of paper?” Of course! Angel’s ideas had outgrown her first draft. She needed a clean slate.
A symphony went off in my head as an important realization sunk in: Just because you’ve written a draft, it shouldn’t mean you’re stuck with it. You should only rework it if it’s workable. Otherwise, rewrite it.
From that day on, I always gave my students a choice during revision time. Either make revisions to your first draft, sentence by sentence, word by word, or take what you learned from writing your first draft and use it to write a new draft, a second incarnation with a fresh approach.
How Can I Apply These Ideas to My Own Writing?
Now an author myself, I haven’t forgotten the lesson I learned from Angel and Trisha. When it’s time to revise a scene I’ve written for my novel, I first ask myself whether the current draft is workable or whether I need to hunker down and just rewrite it.
The answer to that question isn’t easy to come to. Sometimes you have to try to rework the piece before you realize you need to rewrite it. Other times you already know you’ll need to rewrite it before you’ve even finished writing it the first time. There’s no exact formula, but here are a couple of telltale signs that it might be time to rewrite:
If, when making revisions, you’re crossing out more of the piece than you’re keeping, it might be time to rewrite.
If you feel unsatisfied with the piece, and you can’t seem to get it right no matter what revisions you make, it might be time to rewrite.
If you look back at what you’ve written and realize you’re already looking at the topic with a new perspective, it might be time to rewrite.
Now let’s say you’ve decided it is time to rewrite a draft. Does that mean you have to completely scrap the old draft and start 100% from scratch? Sometimes that’s the best choice because it allows space to let fresh thoughts bloom. However, sometimes it makes more sense to keep your old draft handy in case there was something useful there. That way, you don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. Further, you might even transfer whole paragraphs or sections from your old draft into your new one.
Ultimately, there’s a thin line between reworking a piece and rewriting it, and every author’s process is different, so trust yourself. And if you’re in one of those moments when you’re not sure what your piece needs or how to make it better, you just might consider taking a fresh crack at it.
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