On Revision

a bit of "red pen" from my editor

(a bit of “red pen” from my editor)

A lot of people hate revisions. I kind of like them (unless I want to kill them)–there’s something so formative about taking my messy mass of manuscript and scraping and trimming and tidying it up into something manageable, readable, and–if I’m lucky–beautiful.

However, I’ve always been an obedient person. And sometimes I’m too good of a reviser in that I take too many suggestions from too many people about too many things. I noticed this first in graduate school. I’d turned in a story for our workshop. I liked the story and so did my professor. During the workshop everyone gave their best suggestions. I took those suggestions and wove and pasted (and sometimes stabbed) them into my story. When I discussed it with the teacher later, she said she’d kind of preferred the less-revised draft that I’d turned in. She said that the story had lost a lot of its humor and its heart. She was right.

This was one of my biggest takeaways from graduate school–knowing when to stop listening to the good and helpful voices around me. Because if there are too many of them or if they are too divergent, they can kill a decent little story. Make no mistake–I’m all about revising. But there comes a time when it’s time to stop revising–to let your story live as it is. Or at least to recognize that you don’t have to take every single suggestion that comes your way.

This can sometimes be hard to do, especially when you know it’s some kind of authority figure offering the suggestion. Again–let me be clear–you should probably take 80-90% of the revision advice that an editor or experienced writer or close reader gives you. But there are those times–those few times when you like the turn of a sentence the way it is or you phrased that one thing that way on purpose and you feel it gives a little more life than the alternative. There comes a time when keeping something in your story keeps its heart beating more than chopping it out or changing it up.

One of our jobs as writers is to be able to identify those times, and to embrace them. In this way editing something takes an odd combination of humility and stubbornness (kind of a lot of humility with some well-placed stubbornness thrown in).

So, go ahead, be the obedient reviser; listen to your editor, your mentor, your friend. But know where the heart of your story or sentence lies, and–for heaven’s sake–leave it be.

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