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  • [Breakfast with the Muse] The Terrifying, Beautiful Work of Revision
[Breakfast with the Muse] The Terrifying, Beautiful Work of Revision
Written by
Jill Jepson
February 2015
Written by
Jill Jepson
February 2015

My music teacher recently said something that sounded very familiar. “When I tell students to practice a piece, they sometimes think I mean play it four or five times. But that’s not what practice is. Practicing means picking apart a piece measure by measure. Playing small sections not five or six times, but fifty or sixty or a hundred times. Playing it until it feels perfect, flawless, effortless. It is that focused, continual, repeated work that makes you a good musician. That’s what practice is.”

I smiled to myself as he spoke because I have had a similar experience with my writing students. For years, I’ve been telling my students they need to revise, revise, revise. It has taken me a long to time realize that they don't always understand what I mean when I say it.

“I printed out my story and searched for every mistake,” one of my students said in a class last year. “I corrected every misspelling, punctuation error, and typo.” That, to her, was revising. Another student said she was fine with revising three times, but complained that revising more than that was “boring.” Others described revising as going through the comments I’d made and making a few very specific changes.

Even writers who are striving to become professionals often seem to think that revising consists of these things: A few read-overs to identify and correct mistakes. There! Done!

But revising is far, far more than what these aspiring writers believe. And it isn’t until you understand revision that you will be able to take your writing beyond the rough, lifeless, and clumsy to something glowing with life and energy.

1. Revising is not just correcting errors. Going through your work to identify misspellings, grammatical errors, and punctuation mistakes is important, but it isn’t revising, it’s editing. Revising isn’t about correcting errors—at least, it’s not just about that—it’s about going through every aspect of your work with an eye to transforming the mediocre into the brilliant.

2. Revising is not a one-time thing. It also isn’t a two-time, three-time, or four-time thing. You don’t simply write a work then “go over it” to make sure it’s the way you want it. Revising is an ongoing, repeated, constant process. It may take dozens and dozens of readings over weeks or months. You must revise so many times that you can’t imagine there is a single thing that could be improved in your work—then you must revise many more times after that.

3. Revising is specific. You don’t just revise an essay or story. You revise individual passages, paragraphs, sentences, and words. You must isolate tiny sections and read them again and again. You must home in on the most minute aspects of your writing, aware that the choice of one word over another or the alteration of a single sentence can make the difference between a work that is fluid and luminous and one that is awkward and dull.

4. Revising is holistic.  Even as you focus on the minutiae of your writing, you must also look at it as a whole. You must see how every paragraph weaves into a unified work that flows seamlessly from beginning to end.  

5. Revising is layered. Revising means looking at words, then sentences, then paragraphs, then passages, then the entire piece. Some writers go through their work considering just the nouns, then again to look at only the adjectives, then again to consider just the adverbs, and on and on. Revision is too complicated to be done in one sweep. It is a matter of peeling back layer after layer.

6. Revising uses the ear. The sound of your words, the rhythm of your sentences, the flow of your prose: These are all things you need to consider when you revise. Read aloud. Listen. Revision involves the mind, but it also depends on the ear.

7. Revising is slow and hard. There is no such thing as a “quick once-over” in revision. Revision is complex, challenging, and difficult. It is hard work that requires great commitment and diligence.

8. Revising is a skill. It doesn’t come naturally. It must be practiced. Over months and years of revising, you gradually become better at it. You never become perfect. You practice your entire life.

No one has ever written a brilliant novel or memoir in one writing. Every work you read and love and admire has been revised dozens—perhaps hundreds—of times. If you are a writer, you must commit yourself to true, deep revision. It is your lifeblood: The one thing that will bring your writing to life. 

Jill Jepson is the author of Writing as a Sacred Path. To receive her free weekly strategies for writers, click here.

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  • Jill Jepson

    Well said, Jo Lamb!

  • Jo Lamb

    An excellent post. I am still trying to establish the most organised way for revising which will tick all the boxes and produce a polished result. Getting the story out is just the beginning and by no means an end...

  • Jill Jepson

    Glad you liked the post, Cate. It's interesting because I've met some authors who say they find the first draft hardest and the revision easier--but I'm with you. Also, the suggestion to take a break and come back to the work later is excellent. It's amazing how much a ms. can change over a few weeks or months when you don't look at it!

  • Jill Jepson

    I know exactly what you're talking about, L.C. Mohr. That fresh eye becomes harder and harder to bring to your work with each subsequent revision. It's a real challenge!

  • L.C. Mohr

    I find the hardest thing about revising is trying to look at my children's novel with a fresh eye. I know what's going to happen next so it may lack the suspense it needs.

    I know my characters inside and out but I need to present them to a "cold" reader in each revision.