If revision is re-vision, a re-seeing, we might understand it specifically as a shift from seeing our work through the eyes of its writer to seeing our work through the eyes of the reader.”
I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about revision lately. This spring I taught three classes with a focus on revision, and I have been working 1-1 with a poet in Dubai. A key book that’s been refining my thinking is Peter Ho Davies’ The Art of Revision. (Read an excerpt.) Sometimes reading craft books can feel like a slog, but Davies’ writing is direct, clear, and funny. At the size of a large postcard, and just 170 pages, this tiny gem packs the punch of a senior seminar. It’s practical, smart, and inspiring: a game-changer for writers of all genres.
A few main points Davies makes in the book:
1.Create a revision mindset—The practice of revision requires curiosity, a willingness to try, a patience to explore. We often jump into the weeds too soon and start nitpicking over diction or punctuation. What a way to kill the buzz! Instead, what if you approached revision as an act of discovery and exploration? An experiment to learn more about this thing you’re interested in, or to uncover a deeper meaning?
2.Revision is a thought experiment—Davies compares revising fiction to conducting a science experiment. Remember those from school? You’d come up with a hypothesis and test it? That’s what writers do. Like scientists, they follow leads to see what they can learn. Too many new writers dismiss this exploration as a waste of time, whereas scientists see a disproven hypothesis as a good thing! It gives them information, it eliminates a path and re-directs us in a fresh direction, as we take what we learned along with us. Those extra scenes or chapters you wrote taught you a bunch of things, and got you where you ended up with more confidence. Win-win.
3.Revision is about expansion—Revision is not just chopping. I can’t say this enough to my students. If writing is thinking (and we know that it is), then revision is expanding the text to discover what else is there, to gather more information, then contracting again when you’ve learned what there was to learn. Davies refers to the very draft itself as breathing—and I love that. It reminds us that our writing is a living this, so hacking away at it is not a great idea. As Davies notes, “We might understand expansion as the form patience takes on the page.” Brilliant!
With practical suggestions and helpful tips, Davies addresses a lot in this book, including:
I could go on, but I hope you’re getting the picture!
In addition to The Art of Revision, I want to share with you two wonderful online magazines that are determined to take the mystery out of revision: Draft for prose writers, and the terrific underbelly for poets. Both journals show different versions of a piece, and include the author’s commentary about the revision process. I hope you’ll check them out and let me know what you think!