The Act of Revision

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heminwaywriting

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris Review Interview, 1956) 1

Writing-revision

The act of revision is an absolutely necessary part of writing, no matter what kind. Essays, stories, novels, books all require that the author not be satisfied with initial drafts. “Re-vision” means to re-see, or to look at the work from another perspective. This idea is something I try to teach my students in College First Year Writing classes, and it is crucial that I apply the ideas myself to my own work.

When I look back over my writing of the last few years, I can see that I employ this practice. I wrote at five-seven drafts of the chapters of my dissertation for my Ph.D. in English, and I continue to revise with the novels I am currently writing. At this point, I have done seven drafts of my first novel, the supernatural thriller Evil Lives After; I am currently working on the third draft of my second novel, a young adult speculative work. The third is still in the initial first draft phase, but later in the year, revision will begin.  I am not sure if I will ever reach the levels of Hemingway with 39 drafts of an ending to a novel!

Of course, the writer can revise in several ways. Do we do a complete rewriting of the draft trying to deal with everything, or do we focus on a particular aspect of the novel, for example structure or characterization? I do not pretend to know what each writer should do. I suspect that it varies according to project and writer.

What I am certain of is that we must continue to work on the writing, trying to see it in new ways and looking for various problems to fix.

fountain pen

1. From http://grammar.about.com/od/advicefromthepros/a/rewritequotes.htm 3/28/2015.

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38 thoughts on “The Act of Revision

  1. I know that revision is important, and I love doing it for other people, but wish it was more pleasant to revise my own work. I’m always worried I may have looked at a problem more than once, and not really noticed it.

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    • Thank you for the comment. I think that figuring out what to look for and how to look for particular problems in our writing is one of the difficulties of revision. I have found that like writing a draft, discipline in revision helps.

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  2. I’m always rewriting. I read my work aloud into a digital recorder. If I stumble on a word as I’m recording I will stop. Work on the paragraph/ sentence until it sound right then record and continue read and recording until then end. I then play it back and listen to the flow. If it doesn’t sound right I’ll work on it until I’m happy. I have a quote stuck on my computer by the author, Robert B Parker. When asked in an interview about his success as a writer, he said: ‘I think people like my books because they like the way the words sound’
    That’s true of me too, I’m happy with my work, when I like the words sound when I listen to my work being read back to me. I often get my husband to read over my shoulder while I follow it on the screen. I’ll stop him if it doesn’t sound right in the last draft and rewrite it. Good luck with your writing.

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    • Thank you for the comment! Your point about using spoken readings in the revisions is very important, and something I think I should address in another post. I do this with my college classes, and I need to do it more myself in my writing. It is a crucial element of revision. And thank you for your support.

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      • Glad I can help you. I find it easy to edit if I reading aloud but I find I miss too many mistakes because I’m filling the mistakes. If my husband reads my work aloud to me I can see them, but as he can’t be with me all the time Recording and playing it back is the next best thing. Good luck with your writing.

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  3. I absolutely agree. There are parts of every work that can be “re-imagined”. I have rewritten one of my short stories over a dozen times to make it not too philosophical, but philosophical enough. I think you are absolutely right about the need to rewrite stories.

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  4. There is an element of acting involved in writing a book…it is important that the writer”feel” the emotions of his/her characters to make it more real, and so reading aloud is important to ensure the dialogue flows naturally. And when the final, final draft is ready, I have a couple of readers (fresh eyes) go through the manuscript to pick up anything I might have missed.

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  5. I forgot to mention that I visited Hemingway’s writing studio in Key West, Florida several years ago. It was quite thrilling to see his desk and manual typewriter still sitting there, perhaps waiting for his spirit to take up where he left off.

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  6. This is very true. Yet it also is not. There is a kind of grey area, where you need to see things in a new light but changing them is still one thing where you may do more harm than good. That is the balance of writing the story that you want to tell.
    Take my novel Love as an example. It is not an easy read. The style is hard to grasp, even for a seasoned reader. I have had readers and writers a like tell me that they just could not get into the book. The issue with it being that it is written in a way that they are not used to. It is the price I pay for writing outside of the box.
    Yes I could edit the hell out of it and the book would be a breeze to read, but then again it would not tell the story that I want it to tell. This is not to say that I have not fixed it here and there. I have revised it twice before publishing and will most likely keep going back to it through the years, But that is just the hunt for the ever elusive typo’s and small tweaks that will bring the story more to life. Still when I do this I am always careful as not to break the story that I am trying to tell the way that I am trying to tell it.
    So I say again revisions are needed but they are also not. So long as you tell the story you want to tell and it reads as you want it to read. Which is the biggest part of Hemingway’s comment. He rewrote it until he felt satisfied with it.

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  7. Reblogged this on Jin Okubo and commented:
    As an author I see the wisdom in Hemmingway’s words. But as a rebel, lol rebel, I see the need to tell my story my way and to revise but not rewrite if it will break my story. It is a sharp double sided knife. But should anyone bother to read my book they will see that I tell a pretty dam good story and have characters that you will love, hate, envy, and scorn. Sometimes all within one paragraph.

    Liked by 1 person

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