Revision Beyond Rewording: This is what I’m doing!

I sometimes get confused and worried looks from folks when they hear I’m still working on my book. They know I finished writing it months ago, and so don’t understand why I’m still at it. It’s a non-fiction book, so, haven’t I typed out my insights already? They worry I don’t know enough, or I can’t let it go, or I’m being pedantic. Being a writer, they think the task I’m apparently lost in should be straightforward. Don’t I know how to say and fix stuff?

I plead that, yes, I can just write, edit, and deliver! But, but, I didn’t write to report on what I already knew. I wrote to find out more. I wrote to continue the transformation process, not to conclude it.

This description still feels fuzzy, though. So, I was relieved when I came across some uncannily accurate descriptions of my revision process. I now tuck the details behind my ear, so I can whip them out just as the frown begins. Details I’ll share in case you likewise have people worried about you.

First, is the revision research of Nancy Sommers, who looks at the ‘Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.’ But I won’t frame the kinds of revision she outlines in this way, because students can be experienced writers and experienced writers can do what is called a student approach. Age and position are not automatically bundled, or not, with skill. I also don’t want to uphold the idea there are ranked ways of making, because this is how creative instincts are crushed. So I’ll try to talk about approaches without tethering them to status.

One revision approach Sommers lists is viewing the process as a rewording activity. You remove or replace words. This is what all writers and editors do, but, for some, it is all they do. Or, to be specific, their rewording is surface only. Sommers says that when this is the extent of the rewriting activity, what determines success as a writer is how well they identify words to remove, such as those that are repeated, and how well they, thesaurus in hand, find superior replacements.

The limit comes into play when revising stops once the so-called rules of composition (such as not beginning a sentence with a conjunction) are applied. The problem with this is not just there is more to do, but also, as Sommers observes, “changes are [often] made in compliance with abstract rules about the product, rules that quite often do not apply to the specific problems in the text.” This can result in revisions that are inferior to the original draft. And, I’ll add, limits the writer’s imagination to the contour of those rules.

In contrast, another approach is to view revision as a form-finding activity. Words that writers use to describe this include, “finding a framework,” “a pattern” or “a design” for their argument. Aha! Now this I recognise! Sommers relates that “since the first drafts are usually scattered attempts to define their territory, their objective in the second draft is to begin observing general patterns of development and deciding what should be included and what excluded.” Define the territory, yes. It’s not that I don’t have any structure at first, it’s more that I’m drawing to find new lines.

This form-finding approach reminds me of a concept Diana Goetsch builds on and cites in her Actually Writing workshops. It is poet and author Richard Hugo’s notion of a second subject. In The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Hugo says that “a poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or ‘causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.”

Indeed, I find the writing pushes back. It has its own velocity and me my own inertia, and we find a way to dance. So far, this dance has resulted in this book sprouting from another which is paused for the moment, as well as bouncing suprisingly wise moments into being.

In his book on Writing, Research, Theory, and Applications, Stephen Krashen refers to another practice I recognise: that of rescanning. This names my habit of rereading from the beginning of my writing and then continuing on from there. Rescanning helps, Krashen quotes, maintain the “conceptual blueprint.” Like many writers, I find that rereading aloud helps me hear the rhythm, and with this the rescanning helps me keep all the cumulative ideas in mind, naturally washing me up on the shore of a new paragraph.

Illustration of two black bear-like figures riding lines on top of each other
Figures designed by Christy Dena, illustrated by Marigold Bartlett

Sommers also talks about what I’ll call imagining the reader’s experience. With this, Sommers says that some writers “have abstracted the standards of a reader” — which is true. Which reader, though, is relative to the writer. I am not interested in writing for some mythical monied mainstream. But, I’ve found I don’t get to decide who will be interested in my writing. I get to decide who I address, and how. Sommers explains that “this reader seems to be partially a reflection of themselves and functions as a critical and productive collaborator — a collaborator who has yet to love their work.” But, Sommers adds, “these revision strategies are a process of more than communication; they are part of the process of discovering meaning altogether.” Yes, I’ve found it is not just my writing that speaks back to me, and the people I refer to, but also those I imagine reading it with me.

Then there are actual reader responses, which is now an essential part of my process. I deliver to readers for accountability, and because I want to see what meaning is happening. It’s not that I’m trying to get the right response, or that I automatically acquiesce if they recoil. We don’t have to be in lock-step. I find Stephen Duncombe’s reframing of cause and effect helpful here. In ‘Does it Work? The Æffect of Activist Art,’ Duncombe likens the art process to a prism. That is, when light is directed at a certain angle, a rainbow can come out the other side. We don’t decide what colour emerges.

I only have control of the light going in, not going out. What this means in the reading context, is that I’m checking to see if my light is strong enough and directed at the right angle to give a rainbow, or a colour, a chance. As Duncombe says, “we can make sure that something happens, and then, once we’ve determined what has happened, refocus our efforts.” My refocuses so far include: leading with new ideas and actions rather than building to them, and not defining how my readers and I are the same and different, but instead sharing how I feel the same and different.

Tied with this is responsibility. I notice I carefully consider the possible implications of my words on the ongoing lives of the readers I may touch, and whom they touch. With each edit, I envision trajectories shifting far beyond the book. It’s not that I know exactly what will happen, but I definitely calculate ramifications and care about my role in them. I also want to welcome applications I haven’t imagined, and so I design with an elasticized waist in mind.

I also check whether I’m representing other people’s ideas truthfully. Did they really say that? Is it representative of their meaning? Part of this, is I let them speak in their own words while keeping my own rhythm and the reader with me. Following on from Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, Eve Tuck and Wayne K. Yang’s work on citation ethics, I also audit to see if I’m building off folks I haven’t credited yet (and others haven’t too). And all of this operates like a kind of bead work where I sew in voices, and with each change need to unpick and resew transitions.

So, yes, I am cleaning up spelling and grammar and finding jazzy words. But each reword is terraforming from the inside and dialling up new worlds. I’ve been loving listening to David Naimon’s podcast ‘Between the Covers’ for this reason. Naimon notices the tiny choices fellow writers make, and plucks the threads that reach below. He knows why they take their time writing, and now I can say why too!

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Some books that I have found helpful in describing and facilitating the revision process:

Jack Epps, Jr’s Screenwriting Is Rewriting: The art and craft of professional revision

Peter Ho Davies’ The Art of Revision: The last word

Matt Bell’s Refuse To Be Done: How to write and rewrite a novel in three drafts

Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses [Schell’s book is not framed as a revision book, but the “lense” approach works this way]

Suggest some more diverse authors of revision books, please!

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I wrote and revised this essay during the writing sprints I run with the artistic fellows at the Norwegian Film School. :)

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Christy Dena

writer-designer-director story games, F/S, Crafting Intangibles, EXLab. Currently writing a book about “Redesigning Narrative Design” (this is my 2nd account)