Thursday, August 11, 2016

Part Two Revision Strategies: Writing without Readers

Part Two Revision Strategies: Writing without Readers

“And what is the main thing, we speak of beauty and good itself, and so in the case of all the things that we then set down as many, we turn about and set down in accord with a single form of each, believing that there is but one, and we call it ‘the being’ of each./That’s true./And we say that the many beautiful things and the rest are visible but not intelligible, while the forms are intelligible but not visible …. Then let’s not be surprised if the carpenter’s bed, too, turns out to be a somewhat dark affair in comparison to the true one.”
––Plato Republic

For many writers enrolled in beginning composition courses, texts are only a site for right and wrong. In their minds, “naturally” talented authors write in perfect drafts. Plus, there is seemingly no such thing as a reader separate from the writer, a reader who has her own needs and desires that might be in opposition to the writer’s expressive strategies.

For example, my students sometimes experience their texts as being made of concrete. Revision, if it exists at all is meant only for removing errors. Everything else about the text is immutable and fixed as a prison wall.

I need them (and myself) to experience our drafts as being made of clay, ready to be wetted, reworked, and shaped into new and infinite forms. Texts can become sites for discovery, experimentation, and play. Something that can only happen if we learn to smash, manipulate, expand, and refine them with curiosity and joy.

For years, I thought and spoke about revision as being made up of four possible actions and two possible entry points. This helped me rework my own writing and made the revision process real for my students, something I covered in an earlier post (“Infinite Revision”).

In setting forth the four actions (adding, subtracting, moving, or replacing) I hoped to create simple ways of entering an abstract endeavor. Through revision as play, I hoped we could offer our readers freshness, surprise, and a less rigid more authentic voice that arose from delight not rigidity.

Until recently, the goal of revision for me was the reader’s on-going interest, but as I explored in last week’s post perhaps the reader’s presence dims rather than illuminates the writer’s ultimate purpose.

It wasn’t until I heard the celebrated author Ottessa Moshfegh name another possibility for revision, one that ignored readers and focused only on uncovering stories in their most illusive and ideal form that I realized my own approach to revision might benefit from further refinement.

Sometime after Moshfegh’s visit to my class, I was awarded a fellowship to the CatamaranLiterary Conference in Pebble Beach. There I worked with Scott Hutchins author of the novel A Working Theory of Love. It was like being taught by Buddha. In his presence, the most anxiety provoking writing tasks––the beginning or ending of a piece, its revision or its goal––became achievable and charged with hope.

Like Moshfegh, when approaching revision discussions, Hutchins never explicitly spoke about readers’ needs. Thus my anxiety about a text’s ultimate purpose may have been eased. He did guide us, however, to closely explore the work of other writers in order to identify how and why we found them affecting.

Everything about Hutchins’ approach to writing and writers was gentle and encouraging. He offered frameworks that made revision seem like a fundamental, even enjoyable task. What he shared was immensely helpful, and in that spirit, I share it with you.

Hutchins draws from Stephen Koch’s excellent book the Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction. In it, Koch proposes that there are roughly three primary phases to the writing process.

Phase one is the initial draft, where a writer gathers clay and begins to sense the particular elements in what is being created. Phase two, by far the longest, is where a writer expands, improves, and builds on what the phase one brought forth. Phase three is a time of intense polishing. The writer “cleans” up and ideally reduces the text by about ten percent.

Hutchins also shared what he named as the key ideas he’s taken from Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. Those ideas are: state things positively; avoid modifiers; use strong nouns and verbs; and pay attention to periodic structure, placing the most important words of each sentence just before its final punctuation.

In his workshop, we therefore spent time scanning our own texts and reworking them with these guidelines in mind. For example, “Don’t revise only thinking of your laziest reader” might become “Find entry points to revision other than reader reaction.”

Likewise, getting rid of modifiers means your sentences will become lively and direct, not “so,” “very,” or “too” lively and direct.

In general, the strongest nouns and verbs are those that are the most specific and sensory. So, whenever possible, use proper names and the most active form of any verb.

Finally, think about the impact and placement of each word in a sentence. Consider placing strong words at the end of your sentences where they will have the most impact. I wasn’t at all sorry to experience how such focused actions, generated such dynamic texts. Or as I should say, I gained confidence witnessing dynamic texts emerge from focused action.

Since then, what I’ve learned about revision is that like everything else about writing, one will never grow bored considering what it can do and how one might approach it. Revision is writing and to write is to revise; it is best to enter all of it with respect for its magnificent possibilities and compassion for the writer engaging in it.


  1. Kimberly, I just finished your "As You Know, Bob" in the Fall Catamaran. Such a delightful, nuanced piece, so sad and funny at the same time. Keep working the craft, Tom

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Tom. I'm glad you enjoyed "As You Know, Bob." I haven't given up on the craft yet, so I suppose there's nothing left to do but keep going ;-)