In a recent post, Write To Done’s Leo Babuta (of Zen Habits fame) discussed revision as primarily a process of simplifying. The tips he provides in that post focus on removing the inessential and the verbose (the “cluttered” parts of a piece of writing, so to speak). Those of you who are familiar with Leo’s writerly ethos will appreciate that his definition of revision is consistent with his blogs’ values and goals.
Certainly, part of the revision process consists of pruning away those parts of the piece that don’t work. When drafting, it’s easy to perpetrate wordy, vague sentences and wandering paragraphs in the name of getting started with a draft.
More to the point, at the drafting stage these kinds of writing “sins” are acceptable. The goal of drafting is to get your ideas out on paper (or on the screen) where you can work with them. If you stop to rework every passive construction that pops into your head as you draft, you’re bound to lose some ideas. It’s in revision that you clean, tighten, and polish your sentences.
But I like to think about revision in a different way. For me, the most useful way to approach revision is as a process of re-envisioning. When I re-envision, I engage the draft on several fronts. Next time you approach the task of revision, I hope you’ll try thinking about it in the following ways. You might find that your attitude shapes your outcome.
1. Re-envision your writing’s focus. After completing a draft, I sometimes find that my writing has gone in a direction in which I did not intend to go. How this happens is a mystery: my imagination runs with an idea while my reason is on a coffee break something, I don’t know. Re-envisioning allows me to evaluate this digression and potentially shift the piece’s focus to accommodate it. Sometimes, of course, I remove it from the piece altogether, but by re-envisioning I don’t assume that the digression is wrong and the pre-existing focus is right.
Are there pieces in your writing that appear to wander from your point? Are any of these useful? Could they be connected to your main idea? Should you put them aside to be used in a later piece? Are they promising? Should you refocus the entire piece, making one of your “digressions” the main point or example?
2. Re-envision your piece’s organization. When we draft, it’s often without a clear, cogent organizational strategy. We are more likely to discuss points in the order they come to mind than in a coherent order (i.e., strongest reason first and proceeding to weakest, or building from basic reasons to the more persuasive ones). This is consistent with the goal of drafting; however, just because you drafted it that way doesn’t mean that it should stay that way.
Re-envisioning the piece’s organization invites you to impose a structure on the essay or to improve its existing structure. Some writers take re-envisioning to a literal extreme by printing out the essay, cutting the pages so that each paragraph is on its own little strip of paper, and moving the strips around on their office floor. Re-envisioning helps you to see that everything in your draft is negotiable.
3. Re-envision your audience and your purpose in writing. The aim of writing is to communicate. In On Writing, Stephen King calls writing a form of telepathy. When drafting, however, it’s easy to forget that you’re writing to people with needs, emotions, and biases. What are you trying to convey, and are you doing it in the most effective way possible given your audience?
It’s perfectly fine to draft for yourself, thinking only of your perspective, your mood, what you want to say. But when you revise, you must bring your audience back to the table and re-envision your piece through your audience’s eyes. Are you using examples with which they will identify? Are you establishing credibility and goodwill with your reader? Are you wasting their time? Are you being inconsiderate of their needs as readers?
Remember Holden Caulfield J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
When you revise, you must pare down, simplify, cut. But you must also re-envision. Because when it comes down to it, you’re not writing for yourself. You’re writing for an audience – even if it’s an audience of one.