Guts and Gore of Revision

So much of revision, I’ve discovered, is about coming to terms with that word: gone. Letting things go. When revising, the beginning writer spends hours consulting the thesaurus, replacing a period with a semi-colon, cutting adjectives, adding a few descriptive sentences–whereas the professional writer mercilessly lops of limbs, rips out innards like party streamers, drains away gallons of blood and then calls down the lightning to bring the body back to life.

“Home Improvement” by Benjamin Percy. Poets & Writers, May/June 2010

In the current issue of Poets & Writers, writer Benjamin Percy compares revising his novel with renovating his house. I can really relate to the passage above. I have to admit that only recently have I developed the stomach to really revise my writing, really take a hack saw to the sections that didn’t work or move the story forward. It takes guts to do this as it is so easy to be precious with my writing – tinker with my hard earned words instead of sacrificing them in the name of a better story.  In his article, Percy presents a couple of methods of getting comfortable with taking criticism and making needed revisions. One is to begin with the end in mind – if you know the ending of your story or novel, then it is much easier to get rid of anything that doesn’t move the story towards that ending. At the other extreme is to write a huge number of pages and then trim them back to reveal the story. Personally, I do a little bit of both. The blank screen or white page makes me anxious and writing something, anything makes me feel better, even if I end up discarding it later.

What is your approach to revision?

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One thought on “Guts and Gore of Revision

  1. I think that revision is absolutely necessary. Even Cormac McCarthy doesn’t write the perfect sentence/scene/novel the first time around. I have two different approaches to revision. First, there’s the “it’s almost good enough so I’ll just correct a few minor things” approach. Here, I’ll listen to workshop comments, institute changes, and send stuff out. Of course, the problem there is that multiple rejections tend to follow. Again, no first draft is perfect. My second approach is to rewrite, from the beginning, the entire story. This seems pretty daunting when I start, but if you follow Hemingway’s assertion that all first drafts are “excrement,” then there’s no better reason to start from scratch.

    I like both of Percy’s suggestions. Roy Peter Clark suggests writing towards an ending as well. I really like the idea, though I sometimes find that writing toward an ending makes me write somewhat mechanically. That is, I feel like I lose some of the good stuff that might come if I just let the story grow organically.

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