Literary Hook: Learning the science behind revision in writing

Last week, the topic of revision and publication was introduced. We’ll look at revision this week, and save publication for a forthcoming series.

At writers’ conferences and at writing residencies, some questions that always arise are: How much revision do you do? When do you know that something is finished? Of course, these questions do not have straight and simple answers. Indeed, the approach to these issues varies depending on your own creative process, where you are in your own ability to gauge your work, and whether you are a perfectionist.

Perfectionism, by the way, can actually be a deterrent to writing success. I know of several writers who have spent hours, months, even years “perfecting” their golden egg: they revise and revise, go to writers’ groups after writers’ groups; but rarely risk sending the work out to a publisher. Here’s a secret: At some point, a publisher or editor might provide the same service that a group can. That is, the editor might see exactly what is needed to make the piece publishable. I am always happy when an editor “rejects” my work, but with some suggestions for revision, usually accompanied by a note to resubmit.

But back to the topic of revision. For most people, the most creative part of writing occurs during the rough draft. The creative juices are flowing, the adrenaline has kicked in, and you’re off and running with your poem, essay or fiction. You’re really into it. There’s an excitement and a feeling that everything is working. There’s a sense of discovery and newness. How do you retain this spark of electricity and still revise appropriately? Perhaps the best way is to put the piece away for a while—a week or more—and return to it with fresh eyes and ears.

I say “ears” because it’s really important to read the piece out loud. Sometimes the ears catch what the eyes miss. Sometimes words just don’t sound right, or the syntax is clunky, or the alliteration is brutal. You get my drift.

Many people mistakenly think revision is about “reducing” the work; but this surgical process isn’t always the best way to revise. Sometimes there isn’t enough specific detail in a piece to create and sustain a satisfying reading experience.

You can try a piece out on a friend (with a good ear and good mind) or a group (that knows what it’s doing) if you need some extra ears. If you are writing poetry, ask yourself if the visual or traditional form you have created serves the meaning of the piece. After you have exposed your writing to these processes, the next step is to send it out to a publisher.

More on publishers next week. Until then, I want to tell you about a unique and exciting event, “Music to My Eyes,” Friday, March 3, 6 p.m. at the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center. It will include visual artists from Womanspace, performers from the Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center, songs by Womansong, instrumentalists and a finale composed by Donald Fraser and my own lyrics performed at Second Congregational Church. It’s going to be very exciting. Don’t miss this one! More about this next week, too.

Christine Swanberg is a local author and poet who has written several books of poetry and formerly wrote a column called “The Writer’s Garret” for this newspaper.

From the Feb. 22-28, 2006, issue

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