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  • Writer's pictureAnne Molinas

Revision Is Writing

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

The first thing we write on the page is rarely where we end up.


Passion flower plant with bud
Passion Flower Bud

When my son was a young child rushing to do his homework writing one paragraph essays, I always told him to try to write it at least two times. A first version to get his ideas down, and a second to check what he wrote the first time. While most of you reading this post already know that rewriting is part of writing, I sometimes find that writers—both students and more established writers—tend to make excuses when rewriting. Not that they do not think it is a necessary part of writing, just that, in the discomfort of dealing with what is currently on the page, there is a reflexive move to talk about “bad” writing. In fact, many times the students I work with start a session by stating up front that they are not good writers. I smile and suggest that we look at what they have written before making any judgments because the focus of rewriting should be on what we can do with what is before us rather than an evaluation of what we hope the finished product will be. So, in that sense, “writing” is not the first thing we put down on the page, or even the rewrite that we show someone, whether it is an early draft or a final draft to be submitted, but the ongoing process of the work we do to create a piece of writing, which at some point, we will consider finished.


Getting Started


Although the first thing that we write is not the final product, in order to get started, we need to write something. For example, I have come to the first draft of this post multiple times, trying to find my way into the topic I want to write about: the role of revision in the writing process. Even before that, I did some freewriting in a spiral notebook. And now as I reread what I have written, I look for the thread; a sentence or phrase that points to the thing I know I want to say but have not yet found. Will I use this? I do not know yet? I will not know until I get to the end of this thought, this moment of writing, and later dive back into what I have written. How do I know what I will use and at what point? That is the issue, I do not know and yet I get there.


While, in one sense, as I write this, I am thinking about the act of writing—the doing of the process that moves thoughts, ideas, impulse to actions that results in a product that is coherent, relevant and readable—I am also concerned with that product. They are not inseparable and, of course, our goal. In order to help us get there, it is necessary to break down the actions that go into making that product in order to produce it. Guidelines that outline the writing process help to demystify writing by letting us know that it is not just something that happens, but something we need to return to, refine and work at. Understanding the parameters and technical requirements of the particular kind of writing we are doing, such as formatting, divisions, headings citations and disciplinary vocabulary are helpful in limiting the vast and overwhelming realm of possibilities, as with any creative activity. But adhering too closely to a step-by-step approach can also be limiting if we merely fill in the slots and go through the motions without more attention to the integrity of the whole.


Different Approaches to Writing


Writers work in different ways and each has their own process, method and relationship to writing. Some writers work in ways that seem linear and more closely follow the steps in guidelines. They first do the research, then outline the points they want to make and flesh out the outline. A first revision in this process is looking for overall coherency. Later, the paper is revised for sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. When it is done, it is polished off with a final proofreading.


Others, like myself, have messier, more eclectic styles. For us, sitting in front of the page becomes part of struggling with what we want to say and how to say it. Therefore, revision, particularly in the second phase of looking at sentence structure, more than the step in which we address specific formal concerns, is also the moment when active rethinking, restructuring of ideas, sentences and language takes place. As we consider the correct construction of each sentence, we start to perceive whether we have clearly expressed what we want to say. Did we support the argument or claim we are making, or do we have to reword our thesis? Do the progression of statements that layout the points we are making convey what we want to say, or do we have to move around, delete or write additional sentences? As we do this, we may consider information that needs to be included, more accurate words we can use, transitions that connect ideas, as well as pay attention to the rhythm and style of our prose.


Whichever type of writer we are, when revision is done thoughtfully, it inevitably makes us think, bringing us to new ideas and insights.


Revision Without Judgment


The paradox of writing is that, in order to get started, we need to write something, anything, as unsatisfactory as it feels. While we want to complete a well written piece, until we put something on the page, though it is rarely what we want to say, we do not have writing. Then, after getting those first words down, we must look at that anything without judgment. Not make excuses for it, say it is bad writing or that we are bad writers. Just accept that it is the first and inevitable step in creating that thing we are going to write. There are no shortcuts or way around it. We cannot have that other writing if we do not do this one. So, when we reread it, or ask someone else to read it, both of us should understand that we are looking at something that has both the seeds of the finished product, even shoots and small leaves, but also weeds that need to be removed. And as we continue to tend to our writing, it will continue to grow and develop into a mature piece beyond our expectations.

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