What is Revising? (6)

Our writing workshop group at the Bixby Library embarked collectively on individual writing projects several weeks ago. Each writer has produced a respectable amount of work to this end, and each seems to feel as though they want to write more. No one has a complete draft yet, so we plan to continue to write and delay our initial plans for revision.

Despite that plan, I couldn’t resist the serendipity this week when I discovered the feature article in the August 6th edition of the New York Times Book Review. The online version of the article (link above) displays the work of six poets while that work was still in process. Typed early drafts are annotated for revision by the writer, and a short commentary provided.

So, what is revision? I like to describe it as two-thirds of the writing process. If you don’t recognize this bulk, you may do a lot of editing before you get words onto the page, and this process might be interfering with “first thoughts” (Goldberg) and preventing real energy in your writing. Eduardo Corral describes revision this way: “Revision helps me envision other possibilities for the language on the page.”


The double cutting edge of the NYTBR article balances on insight into the processes of other writers. This can be enlightening and inspire you with techniques to try if you are lost. It can fuel you to try again. This voyeurism can also distract you from tunneling away at your own work.

Seeing these writers take a variety of approaches can enable us to be more open to our own intricacies, to fear a little less that we have no idea what we’re doing, to accept that there is not just one way to be a writer.


What patterns emerge as you read these drafts and the revision notes?

The small changes we can see are excellent examples of the distillation that happens behind the scenes in poetry, a strengthening of effect (working toward what June Jones calls “maximum effect with minimum words”).

You also see as you examine the notations and commentary that each poem has a kernel of something, though it may be rough, confused, or garbled. Compare Pinsky’s draft 8 to his final (or published) version. And if you’re interested in some of the ancestor allusions check out this or this or this.

In the commentary, each poets reveals specific aims for their revision of their particular draft. Corral’s is to hone the emotional pleasure. Collins seems to want to amp up his ironic voice. Pinsky was shortening, directing, and swiftening.

The poet recognizes the kernel of purpose and identifies a purpose to the piece (and revision). Sometimes this identification comes before writing, and sometimes there is a mis-identification. The revisions aim to strengthen what is working toward that purpose and to remove what is not working to that purpose.


So to prepare for revision, here are some questions to help you begin:

  • what am I trying to accomplish with this piece? (what is the effect I want it to have?)
  • what is/isn’t working to this end? what is distracting? (workshops are usually great for honing this awareness)
  • what can I do to make this piece stronger? (specificity, removing cliche, concrete detail, etc.)

Have a goal for your revision, and try to hone for effect, for clarity, and for strength of language.


This weeks prompt is a timed writing exercise that you can take in one of two directions. You will start with a question. You can write an answer to that question or you can allow the question to initiate your writing voice and that voice’s direction (taking it wherever you want). Set your timer for ten minutes. Here’s the question: “Why do we burn our own neighborhoods?”

Good luck!