Revision: On Being Precise and Direct
What I want to talk about today is the business of revision. A writer recently asked me if I revise line by line in chronological order. It seemed like a simple question, but I had to stop and consider it for a moment. In one regard, yes, when I revise I start at the beginning of a story or particular scene that needs attention. Working one sentence at a time, I’ll consider things such as: word choice (especially verbs), punctuation as pertinent to rhythm, and sentence length. I’ll also look at specific sensory details or consistency of metaphor, when appropriate. But more than anything, when I revise I am looking for something that can’t be measured: that crack in the sentence that tells me either a) something is not right and the content or phrasing might need to be abandoned, or b) something is very right and if I just listen to what the sentence is actually trying to say, I might revise my way to a more direct, precise way of saying it.
Let me say a little more about that last point: direct, precise. Being direct does not have to mean being boring. It doesn’t even mean we have to give everything away. But as writers, each sentence must be building toward something else–either character development, plot development, deepening of place, or reiteration of theme. Many times, the sentence does several of those things at once. That’s what I mean when I say, “precise.” Even still, the sentence must also stand perfectly well on its own–and that’s what I mean when I say, “direct.”
Of course, we I’m chugging along in revisions, I don’t often think about what I’m doing in such a conscious way. It’s only as an educator that I have had to dissect my creative process and try to articulate it to others. In so doing, I get a little X-ray glimpse of my own mind as it weaves the threads of any given sentence together…But hold up there: weaving? Yes, weaving. How else can writers create sentences that do so much with so little, without the great tool weaving? When we weave the purpose of the sentence (that it must build toward something) with the content of the sentence (that it must clearly and specifically say something), we get writing that feels more complete.
So we go and we go…from word to word, sentence to sentence. We pull upwards from the bedrocks of our stories to make sure we’re getting things right and we pull downwards from the heavens to make sure our meaning is in place. It sounds sort of wishy-washy, I realize, but aren’t all great things a little elusive when it comes to being pinned down?