Revision is an integral part of the process. I still struggle with this stage, especially when I’ve written a draft that isn’t too terrible but isn’t what I would like. With this kind of writing, it can be difficult to know what to do next. Sometimes I get so accustomed to reading the words the way that I wrote them that I become unwilling to make radical changes, even when they are needed.
Anne Lamott says that much of writing is writing until you get to the idea or phrase or scene that rings true. However, much of the time you have to write several pages of shitty first draft to get to that point. I identify with the idea of writing as a process of discovery. Many times, I start writing not knowing what I want to write, and the process of writing teaches me. Through writing, ideas emerge that I might never have had access to otherwise. The problem then becomes eliminating the sentences, paragraphs, or pages that no longer fit with these new ideas but which I had to write in order to arrive at my final concepts.
Knowing the difference between the parts of your writing that ring true and the parts that you had to write to get to the writing that works is an important part of revising. Anne Lamott uses the image of a game of pick-up sticks. You start by removing the sticks that seem loose and don’t really touch the others. This applies to your writing as well. You start by cutting the parts of writing that you can easily take out.
Lamott says, “I take out the easy stuff, stuff that obviously doesn’t go there, stuff that I needed to write to get to the stuff that I wanted. It’s a matter of finding the shape of it, and taking out the stuff that isn’t part of the vision.” In this view, revising is like pruning out the unneeded material. Not only does pruning involve cutting off dead branches, it also involves trimming off seemingly healthy ones in order to get the plant to grow in the proper shape or to force the plant to grow back thicker and stronger.
Not only do you want to cut out the words, images, and ideas which are dead, you also need to cut out the material that isn’t working because you are trying too hard to be clever. Anne Lamott notes, “All the stuff that you thought was so fascinating, so interesting, so charming that you love it to pieces—it sticks out like a sore thumb.” Taking out words and phrases that you love can be the most difficult part of revising, but you have to be willing to kill your darlings. I’m not sure who first said this often-quoted piece of advice, but Lamott is among the number of writers who will tell it to you.
Sometimes your work needs major, major revision. It’s not just killing your darlings, it’s taking their bodies and cutting them apart and trying to put them back together in a way that brings life. This sounds like a task reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein, but sometimes it needs to be done. In Bird by Bird, Lamott relates her revision process for her second book. After her editor read the complete manuscript, he told her that while the book had wonderful characters, it never got around to really saying anything. It was difficult for Lamott to hear this, but once she was able to look at her manuscript again, she saw the potential in it:
“One morning I took my three-hundred-page manuscript and began to lay it down on the floor, section by section. … There were sections up front that clearly belonged in the middle, there were scenes in the last fifty pages that would be wonderful near the beginning …. Then, when I was sure, I stacked up all the pages in their new order and set about writing a third draft.” (Bird by Bird)
Revision (especially dramatic revision) can’t always be done on a computer screen. Lamott recommends printing everything out. “Send money to the Sierra Club if that makes you feel better,” she says. There is something about seeing your work in front of you in a concrete way that can help you re-conceptualize it. And while the revision process can be painful, it is absolutely necessary to help your writing be the best it can be.