Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Revision Beast

Here’s a question for you: Is there such a thing as too much revision? I’ve been thinking lately that there is definitely such a thing as too much writing – where you spend so much time in front of the computer that you forget to go out there and have experiences worth writing about, and I’m sure the same can be said of too much reading. What about revision? Is it possible to over-revise?

I’ve seen sometimes in workshops people turn in revised drafts of stories where the earlier draft was, in my opinion, better than the revision, and I’ve had that same criticism given to me about one of my own past workshop revisions. I’ve even seen, sometimes, in journals or collections, stories that feel sort of bland, lifeless, and I’ve wondered if this might be the result of too much revision, where the initial spark for the story, whatever it was that had made the writer want to write it to begin with, has been revised out.

I’m a huge proponent for extensive revision. I tend to believe that many writers, especially those just starting out, don’t revise anywhere near enough. Revision is, in fact, what I consider the biggest difference between writers and would-be-writers: serious writers take revision seriously.

But is there a line that you eventually cross where the piece is as good as it’s going to be and any further revision will damage it, or perhaps just turn it into something completely different? Or maybe what I should be asking is how do you know when a piece has crossed that line? I’ve heard that old rule that if you get to a point where you’re only changing minor things with each revision, you should take it to mean that you’re done. But what if you’re like me: a perpetual reviser, someone who might work on a single story or novel for years and years and years, someone who continues to revise stories long after they’ve been published?

I’ve heard interviews with professional writers – that rare breed that actually makes a living off of writing – who say that part of being a writer is finishing. Yes, you need to revise, but you also need to stop revising. You need to send your work out there. You need to move on to the next project.

I wonder if it’s possible that revision is actually holding me back. I revise so much that sometimes new projects will sit on the backburner for ages because I never have time to work on them, I’m too busy reworking this or that older project. Right now I have several new stories I’d like to write, for example, and a new novel I want to work on, but I keep not doing it because when I sit down to write, I always end up rewriting. And the thing about endless revision is that sometimes a new draft won’t necessarily be any better than an older draft, just different.

I’m not suggesting that anyone should ever stop revising altogether, but maybe it is possible to spend too much time revising. Maybe equally important to taking revision seriously is being able to face the empty page without fear, being able to open a blank document and create something new over and over and over again.


Justus said...

This is a valid question. I like your point that sometimes additional revision doesn't improve a piece, it just makes it different. Any initial spark for a story has many directions it could go in, and I think we writers can see those possibilities. That's good because a story should be what it is because the writer has made good choices for it, not because a writer wrote down whatever initially came to mind. Yet at some point the story is what it is and substantial changes will make it a different story. That in itself could be a fun experiment: one could begin with the same exact premise and then write totally different stories (I had a professor who did things like this with his writer buddies), but just continuing to rewrite the same story forever is probably not the most worthwhile use of one's time. But it's a tough thing trying to decide when the time has come to set a piece aside and declare it finished.

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