Why You Return to a Story to Revise

Revision has always been difficult work for me. Often I will let an idea tumble around in my head for a few weeks or months (in some cases, years), and one day I am caught up in a sort of fever and I sit down and

write it out. Usually, one of two things happens; either I am immediately sure that I’m created a work of surpassing genius and set it gently aside to wait until my work is finally appreciated, or I am immediately disgusted by the vile abortion I’ve foisted off on the innocent world and I quickly set it aside before anyone can see it. In either case, nothing further happens. In a plastic tub in my closet I have some solid gold stories from Jr. High School, just waiting until the public is ready for them.

Now, in many of my college classes, I have been required to return to a story and revise it. A funny thing happens with this process. I find that those perfect stories often have obvious errors…weird and disconcerting point of view shifts, rickety plot devices, wooden dialogue. They are still pretty good, but they need to be spruced up, and maybe in retrospect some of the characters’ behavior doesn’t make sense, and a little color text needs to be added. Often, the imperfection is what strikes me, and the end result of the revision is much better than the original, although I am less confident in it.

On the other hand, while I loathe returning to the apparent failures, I’ve found that they are like infected boils. Covering them up and keeping them still in a dry place without stimulus for a while makes them a lot better. Generally, a good idea and some hard work will leave you with a product from which something can be culled, no matter how bad it looked the first time. I consider working with “failed” stories to be akin to surgery. In the best cases, you can remove the bad bits, nip and tuck the ordinary stuff to make it look really good, and cover up the results with a flap of style that leaves only the faintest scar to show how that anything serious was ever done.

In the worst case, you’ll have to admit that the patient is terminal and start thinking about organ donation. Even Hitler painted roses, and even the worst piece of writing has something artful. Get out your scalpel (The computer is invaluable for this…copy and paste work with a separate file for salvaged bits) and find the good lines, the scenes that work, the snappy dialogue. Even if the story itself can’t be salvaged, you can take the best parts and use them later. Drop an evocative landscape from a dead story into a novel you’ve been stuck on, or transplant a mouthful of a vanished character’s dialogue into a poem you’re playing with. Nothing is a completely lost cost.

In summation, those authors who claim not to edit their work fall into three categories. Those whose work is edited by others, those whose work is not as good as it should be, and those who are lying. Don’t be any of these. Instead of admiring your favorite renegade writer who never revised their work, mourn for the much better work you’ll never see due to their hubris. That said, I still hate actually DOING revision, and find it the most difficult part of writing.