For the last couple weeks, I’ve been working on revising four short stories for my graduate application writing sample. Revision ideas vary widely with writers and I feel it’s important enough to dig in-depth here. As many of you know, I teach writing classes and I also mentor in creative writing. Through time with students and through critique groups and talking with other writers, I’ve found some writers consider a thorough spell- and grammar-check a revision(maybe changing a few things here and there: basically clean up).
I thought the way, once, but I’ve learned that this is proofreading, where the story is already in the right place. “But my story is there already!” you say. Every story I’ve written started in one direction, and ended on a completely different path.I will outline the process of one such revision.
I pondered a story I had written in college—I don’t remember the revisions it went through there. In this story, I had a character dream, and remember her rape through those dreams and a chance encounter. It didn’t work. She relived the experience at the end of the story, but the writing didn’t convince me. I read the unrevised story at a critique group, and listened to their comments: none of which helped with the problem. The group was not a waste of time, as I heard the story aloud, and actively thought about it and what could make it stronger.
I changed the narrative time, making the story chronological instead of shifting, adding to the before and after of this event. Now the story moved in the right direction. Not all the elements were destroyed, and those that stayed had a new surrounding. I had made the right choice after several years.
This piece went through another critique group, and I got an excellent gauge of the reaction the piece would receive in general. It wasn’t the reaction I wanted. So I took pen to paper, and thought about what I would change. I took suggestions and ignored others. I stuck to having her parents blame her for what happened—it has happened to real people. I changed the delivery of their feelings, but not the intent of what they said.. I think it works.
My stories haven’t been submitted, so there is still time for proofreading. I don’t worry about minor details until thelast, when they are the changes that need to be made. When the heart and the vital systems are up and working, then I worry about the face and features of the piece. Little errors are caught easily when read aloud.
In teaching, I’ve noticed that new writers don’t normally revise; they proofread, as they have been taught before turning in a paper. While not a bad move at all, it isn’t the right move. I had a student who wrote an interesting story. For his revision, he tightened word choice, paying attention to verbs, etc, and did very minor story changes, save for the one our class made. This type of revision works best near the end of the process. I’ve also had another student fix spelling errors only and didn’t address any craft concerns for their revision. The story needed work, not the spelling.
In my few chats with John Brantingham (a faculty member at Mt. SAC in Walnut and fellow writer), we’ve often found ourselves discussing revision. I once posited that we should not be called writers and instead revisionists, and he agreed, saying the work lies in revision.
I say that I’m a fair writer, but a good revisionist (with plenty of help). What do you think about revision?