The Nature of Revision

I read this article on revision yesterday and found the concept fascinating. To boil it down, Craig Fehrman argues that our idea of revision–making large changes–is a modern invention, brought on by first the use of the typewriter and made even easier by the invention of the computer. He argues that writers centuries ago rarely made huge changes. They might make small line or word adjustments here or there, but the gist of what they originally threw down was the same. He explains that this might have been because paper was a luxury, an expensive commodity, hence measly writers couldn’t really afford to make wholesale changes, especially when it would mean handwriting it all!

Once the typewriter was invented, the cost of paper was also less and writers such as Hemingway would often hand-write their drafts and then type them up. Adding that step made it much easier to make changes and helped make the writer (as explained by W.H. Auden) more aware of glaring defects they might not have seen on the page. Today, revision is a slightly different beast. He says our use of computers means we often don’t save or have printed-out copies of drafts, so we might just have one “living document.”

Talking about this with a poet-friend yesterday, it made me realize that I hadn’t looked at an older version of my manuscript, Swallow Tongue, since…well…it was the current version. Thankfully, Submittable keeps records of all the files we’ve ever submitted, so I simply clicked the “Declined” tab and searched through the list to look at the .pdf of the manuscript I submitted last year to the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (btw, the deadline for this year’s contest is July 8th!). I had trouble finding it at first, but then I remembered that I actually submitted it under the title “Predator’s Tongue.”

Going through that old manuscript, a version very similar to the one I submitted as my thesis and defended, made me hyper-aware and glad of most of the changes I had made since. Plenty of the poems in that first version have been changed dramatically, placed in another section of the manuscript, and/or been cut. I also found a couple of poems that, while they didn’t work in a previous draft, I could easily add them into my newest version.

Reading that old version made me dive back in to another round of edits on its current incarnation. I found myself wishing I could just make tiny changes like the pre-Modernist poets and call it a day, but we writers today all seem to fall in line with the mantra: “good writing comes from good revision!” By the end of the evening, I had re-framed another version. I wish I could say what number draft this is, but I haven’t kept a record!

Changes made this go-around:

A suggestion I received from a reader was that I consider making all of the poems in the first section (a section strongly centered on daughter/parent relationships) seem to be spoken by the same speaker. She said it sort of felt like whiplash going between first and third person and when the speaker changed as well. Sometimes, the parent was the speaker; sometimes the daughter was. Traci Brimhall’s Rookery seems to have a cohesive speaker throughout each section, so I used her book as an inspiration. I changed nearly all of the poems to the first person point of view and switched the p.o.v to all being that of a female speaker.

I also moved a couple of poems that no longer fit to another section and brought in a few others than I then changed to fit. For example, “The Swamp Wife” was currently in my second section. This is a poem I really like for its language and sort of surreal qualities. I needed a poem that had those aspects in it in my first section, so I brought it in and changed the title to “The Swamp Daughter” and changed the husband in the poem to the father instead. Since this poem ends up following one about a daughter and father, it works well in expanding the idea of the relationship set up in the one before it.

The second section is pretty similar to what it was before, excluding some poems from it were moved elsewhere and two more were added in. There’s lots of whiplash going on, but I think it works better here than it did in the first section. I also played with the order some more to sort of make it more tense and dark. It is also currently the longest section, so I really wanted the energy to have a clear rise, plateau, and then fall in preparation for the softer third section.The last section also did not change much, with just one or two added additions.

I also played with using “and” vs. “&.” Whether using ampersands really does much has been a running debate in the writing world, and I myself refused to use them for the longest time. I’m now trying it with some of my poems because I do think it changes how a line is viewed, whether if it’s with irritation as the critic Alfred Corn says or with a change in meaning. Visually, I find them appealing, this “different” character on the page. My eyes run over it much more quickly than an “and,” to the point that it seems that I combine the words before and after it more strongly than if they were joined with an “and.” “Tea & honey” seems much more linked to me than “tea and honey.” I like the idea of using them when I desire a more muscular or tenacious connection. I want the ampersand, at least in my manuscript, to do more than just appeal visually. 

With this round done, I think it’s time to send it out again.

Oh writing friends, how do you revise?

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