Over 11 Ways to Revise Work You Thought Too Wonderful or Awful to Revisit Again
by David Wright
1) Revisit the work whether you want to or not. If you can give yourself time away from it, great/best. I don’t think time is magic, but it can take the blush off of your narcissism or self-hatred (the same thing, really), and put the work more centrally within your vision. With new eyes, look at the work, the decisions you’ve made, and those you could make again—both large decisions and smaller ones. You will bring to a second (or sixth) visit some new skills and smarts that allow you to make something of what was nothing (or to make something “really” something).
2) Ask a reader what she thinks. If she praises you, hug her and ride that good feeling as far as it can take you.
2.5) Ask another reader, one who has read a poem, story, or essay actually published in
the last 5 years. Listen to and write down what he says. Respect what he tells you and
read your piece again.
2.75) Ask a reader who doesn’t like you one bit, someone who is not at all convinced
that you are a genius. Respect what she says also.
3) An old standby: read portions of your work aloud. Listen for the rhythms, repetitions, or confusion your language creates for you. How does this language feel on your tongue? What differences or gaps occur between the experience on the page and the experience in the ear? Can you unite these experiences or do you need to choose one over the other?
3.27) Find someone else to read your writing aloud to you. Follow along in the text.
Listen without looking at your manuscript. What do you hear? What would you like to
4) Choose one aspect of craft—poetic diction, characters in dialogue, shaping a narrative from
reflection—and read exclusively for this element. Note each time you rely on this device/element. What complementary development would make your fantastic plot/poeticrhythm/or luminous prose even stronger? Ask one of your readers (see above) to read for this same element. Have the reader tell you what device most drives this piece.
4.823) What “trick” do you rely on over and over? Ruthlessly cut this out of your
drafts. I very often use self-deprecation or parenthetical asides to soften judgments I’ve
made in non-fiction. In poetry, I rely heavily on musical terms and alliteration, sometimes
to the detriment of other qualities of a poem. Once I excise these, I see new possibilities. I
then give myself permission to add back into the work more muted or more carefully
placed versions of what I’ve cut.
5) Before you sit down with your writing, read something you find compelling, surprising, and wildly stimulating. Now work on your piece, failed or successful, and allow the energy from the piece you’ve read to affect your revisions.
5.4) Or, listen to a piece of music, watch a film you love, or visit a truly odd piece of
art in a gallery. Then let the energies of this experience affect your revising.
6) Memorize all or part of your poem/essay/story and walk around with it in your head. Does it feel good to have this piece in your brain? What, besides your earned pride in having made it, accounts for this pleasure? Or, does having your work in your brain hurt your head? Do you want it to stop hurting? Do you want it to hurt someone else’s head? What would you need to do to deaden the pain or to increase the necessity of pain for making some good in the world?
7) If you have several short “starts” of a work, consider combining them. Perhaps the abandoned lines, paragraphs, or images could, together, be a four-section poem, or sections of a short story from differing points of view.
8) Copyedit your work with care (which includes but goes beyond proofreading). Professional copy editors attend to questions of punctuation, grammar, style, spelling, and fact checking. At times you may need to ignore a few of these elements to generate new material. Usually, attending to these primary mechanics of writing (which after all is the arranging of language on a page) is itself generative. Besides the squiggly lines on your screen, consult dictionaries, styleguides and other good resources for copyediting (http://www.journaliststoolbox.org/archive/2009/03/copy-editing-resources.html).
9) Change one major choice about which you’ve been very confident or doubtful. Poet Carl Dennis talks about making an “I” poem a “you” poem. The shift from past to present tense in a short story, or beginning an essay in media res transforms a piece. You may decide not to persist with this change, but it will heighten the other choices you’ve made.
10) When you work in a critique group or workshop, listen to your criticisms and suggestions FOR other writers. Are you listening to your own wisdom? What do you see in these pieces that you could adapt for your own work? Do you find yourself being encouraging to these writers? What do you do well, something you could encourage yourself to expand or amplify?
11) Making decisions about craft can be very gratifying, providing improved clarity, power, or energy in an otherwise lackluster piece of work. Don’t let craft decisions stand in for all the decisions you need to make. Aesthetic, moral, and visionary judgments connect to craft. Do you believe the work you’re writing tells a truth, offers value, or otherwise participates in the world? Does your work merely tell a truth you already know and assume all your readers know? What have you asked your readers to invest or risk? Do you reward the attentions of a generous reader? Does this poem/story/essay make a difference to you? Never flinch from this value or truth, but, at some point, challenge your own urge to soothe, shock, reaffirm, manipulate, criticize or expose for the sake of it.
11.5) Ask yourself what conversations your work participates in—artistic, personal, historical, cultural, theological, etc. Which ones surprise you with their presence? Do you want to mute or amplify them? What do you need to cut or add to accomplish this?
David Wright teaches creative writing and American literature at Monmouth College (IL). His latest poetry collection, The Small Books of Bach (Wipf & Stock), will be published later this year. His poems and essays have appeared in Rock & Sling, Image, Ecotone, and Poetry East, among others. He can be found online at http://sweatervestboy.tumblr.com and on twiiter @sweatervestboy.