Revision’s Role in the Writing Process

Posted on Mon, Oct 14 2013 9:00 am by Jen Kohan

Revision Boot Camp


I have a love-hate relationship with revision. I want my writing to sing with clarity and purpose, and I want it to appear completely effortless. When I sit down to write, I often imagine that it will be effortless, yet this is rarely the case. Honestly, it is never the case. As Dorothy Parker famously stated: “I hate writing. I love having written.”

I also love having written.  Here’s where my love of revision sneaks in: I love to tinker. I love to noodle with words and phrases. I love to rearrange paragraphs and flip-flop episodes.  It’s too often that I fill my dedicated writing time with tinkering, however. Tinkering is not writing. It’s a necessary part of the process, yes, but it isn’t the same as generating text.

Let’s start with the process, then. Prewriting is highly underrated; when I coach writers, I encourage them to spend at least 50% of their project timeline in the prewriting stage. This is a great time to play with ideas and language, listen to the clack of sounds, and get to know your characters.  This is also where research and observation reside, and frameworks are mapped. This is, in fact, a type of revision, and one that will continue to occur throughout the rest of the writing process.

Drafting is the stage in which most writers imagine that the magic happens, but I don’t altogether agree with that perspective. For me, the magic happens when we discover new meaning and understanding by looking at our drafts with new eyes. Revision literally means “to see again.” We write our way to meaning, and we write in order to discover what we want to say. When the words make their way to the page, they are not fully birthed. As soon as they appear in black and white, we immediately reflect on them. We can’t help it.

That’s not to say that the process is consistently linear. Sometimes this reflection tugs us back into prewriting and more drafting. Sometimes it propels us into some degree of revision, which I also encourage writers to address before the editing stage.  Let’s make something clear right now: editing is not revision. Editing comes after revision. What’s the point of editing something you might not keep?

Do you squirm at this suggestion of cutting material? Do you resist Faulkner’s advice to “kill your darlings” and get rid of elements of your writing that do not move your closer to resolution or provide clarity, but that you personally love? It’s tough, I know.

But you must kill them.

One way to revise is to go deep. Deep revision occurs when we create major shifts in structure, voice, and content.  Genre-shifting changes and other risky maneuvers are part of deep revision, and if we can embrace this kind of courageous reflection, we might find ourselves on the other side of a text we never saw coming.

Surface revision is more like editing. Easy, low-stakes tinkering. It’s important for clarity and readability, of course, but rarely does surface revision get us to major breakthroughs.  If we can incorporate both types of revision within our writing practice, we will breathe new life into our discovery drafts.

Now, I’m at the stage of this draft in which I’m beginning to look back on this piece with purpose. (I just changed the word “starting” in the previous sentence to “beginning.” Surface stuff.) When I look back at this point, I wonder if I should open instead with an overview of the writing process, and then I realize that I haven’t touched on the last stage: publication. Not sure I need to.

I’ve trained myself to revise and see my work again in a cyclical pattern, throughout the entirely of my writing act.  The book I’m working on? It’s undergoing a lot more directed, dedicated revision because I’m still drafting my way to meaning. I’m drafting my way to my voice. My daily writing practice is dedicated to generating as much text as possible, and yet I would still say that I’m still entrenched in prewriting.

When I read this later, I’ll surely feel the urge to revise.

I think I’ll sleep on it.

Jen Kohan is teaching "Revision Boot Camp" this fall. She is an English teacher and writing specialist based in the United States—she has worked with young writers and writing teachers for more than a decade. Her academic degrees are in English and humanities; her poetry has appeared in Audemus, and she has published short fiction in Break the Silence. She is currently working on her second screenplay, a stage play, and a collection of nonfiction essays.