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O Revise, What Can I Say More?

By Emily Milner

As you prepare your wonderful essays for Segullah’s Heather Campbell Personal Essay Contest, and your poetry for our poetry contest, I paraphrase Jacob 6:12 with this advice: “O Revise, What Can I say More?”

Maybe I should just stop there; maybe the admonition to revise thoroughly ought to speak for itself. But I’m a talker, so I will do more than that, with these Reasons to Revise.

1- All the cool writers are doing it.
For example: if you have a secret writer crush on Shannon Hale (what? not me! of course not! I’m just thinking of other people who might.) you might be interested to read what she’s got to say on the subject. In this link, she gives a word count for each of the twelve different drafts of Austenland. This piece, full of great advice for wanna be writers, uses the word “rewrite” seven times. She’s quite fervent on the subject. She’s also got a great link full of quotes from other famous authors on rewriting, here. And then, as an editor, I really love what she says on this link about working with an editor. As you’re working on your contest essay, find yourself a good editor, take Shannon Hale’s advice, and apply it.

2-The wanna-be writers (that would be, um, me) are doing it too.

Case in point, with a bit of shameless promotion. The new issue of Irreantum will contain my essay “Beauty for Ashes” in it. Am I excited? You have no idea. I’m very much a novice writer, and I feel all tingly that I get to be there. Not worthy, not worthy. A bit of background on that essay: the version you will read in Irreantum is at least the tenth draft. To be more honest, I have lost count of the number of drafts it’s been through. It went from loose ideas on beauty, all messy, to a more organized structure, to an super-organized structure, to a less organized structure that worked better, to picky analysis of every sentence, by me, and by two editors, plus a copy editor. I swear I have analyzed every “to be” and passive verb, every blasted prepositional phrase, in that thing. Am I sick of it? Well, yeah. I’m also excited to see it in print, though. As a novice writer, I’m always surprised at the level of work, of revising, required to take something from an idea in my head to words on page. Writing is work! It’s fun, yes. Satisfying. But it’s also work.

3-Revision is an act of humility.
Every time I show my writing to someone, and say “Tell me what you think. Be honest. No really, I can take it.” it’s so hard. Because what I’m secretly wishing for is that they’ll say “This is amazing! Astounding! Send that puppy in–it doesn’t need a single thing more.” And I adore my first drafts. I write them in this lovely haze of inspiration. I read them over and memorize their brilliant lines to myself.

It’s so humbling to have someone tell me that this and that and the other need to be changed. Even humiliating, sometimes. But here’s the thing: until I learned to humble myself, find a good editor, get the critiques, and implement them, I never improved past a certain point. Rough drafts can only go so far. A good editor will help you make the words on paper come closer to the words in your heart. That is the only way your readers will be able to really appreciate your experience as you’d like them to. And the humbling is so worth it, when you write something that really connects with a reader.

4-Revision is an act of truth-finding.

I used to think that the first draft of an essay was it. There it came, fully formed, out of my head and onto the computer screen, voila! But what I’ve found is that the first draft of my essay is really only what I think about the issue on that day. If I write about the same thing a different day, something else will come out. And another day, and another. What I absolutely love about revising essays is the way these truths coalesce, so that I can find what’s really going on in my head and my heart. The better my rewriting, the more true my essay becomes. Messy, early-draft essays have the seeds there, but they are not as clear, as resonant, as the later revisions.

5-I want you to win this contest. I really, really do.
Okay, not everyone can win it. Sigh. But you could. Those ideas you’re kicking around, that you’ve been playing with? Another few drafts, and they could turn into a winning essay.

About Emily Milner

(Poetry Board) graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature, but it was long enough ago that most of what she learned has leaked out. She would like to mention other hobbies or interests, but to be honest she spends most of her free time reading (although she does enjoy attempting yoga). She used to blog at hearingvoices.wordpress.com. For now, though, Segullah is her only blogging home, and it's a good one.

15 thoughts on “O Revise, What Can I Say More?”

  1. I used to think that needing to revise was the sign of a bad writer. But as soon as I started hanging out at Segullah, my perspective started to shift. I used to be so proud, thinking that I was smart enough that my original words needed no improvement (ha!) but it's been such a great learning experience to see how much more there can be in a piece of writing once you're willing to go back and work on it again. It's tough, but ultimately very worth it!

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  2. Great title. Your third point about humility is dead on. Revision is painful. Reminds me of another good scripture:

    And except ye revise ye shall perish; yea, even your lands shall be taken from you, and ye shall be destroyed from off the face of the earth.

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  3. I love this! I had a similar discussion with my juniors last week. They think lots of scribbles from me on their rough drafts mean they have failed. I tried to convince them that it's quite the opposite. Where did they get the idea that a first draft could/should be perfect?

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  4. I too have become a convert to the revision congregation. Now I revise so much that when I read it for the umpteenth time I wonder why it is so familiar- where did I hear this before, did I read this, am I plagarizing? When actually I've just read/revised it so many times the words echo in my head.

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  5. Great post, Emily.

    Here are a couple of my favorite quotes on revising:

    "There's no such thing as good writing; there's only good rewriting." –Juanita Brooks

    "I rewrite a lot, over and over again, so that it looks like I never did. I try to make it look like I never touched it, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of sweat." –Toni Morrison

    "Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just of the edge of beginning." –Natalie Goldberg

    This trait, more than any other, is what separates so-so writers from really good writers–the willingness to revise.

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  6. Angela, remember how the Summer issue of Segullah was mailed in September? I think Irreantum is doing just dandy.

    Shelah, you are an amazing reviser–so good at implementing feedback. And I have to say, in college I used to write first draft papers and do pretty well on them; I also looked down on doing too many drafts. But a paper is different from an essay or another type of creative writing. You don't need to add layers of meaning and depth in the same way.

    Annette, yes! Drafting is short, rewriting long.

    Jacob, ha!

    Julie R., that is so interesting about your juniors; I think that's a common response when we're first edited. Our contest winning essays are published as-is, without significant revision (this is why you've got to make them good!!). But everything else at Segullah goes through several drafts. That has been a bit surprising for some of our authors, who may have thought that since we were publishing their piece, it did not need a lot of work. This is not true–even the most polished writing we receive still gets picked and poked at and tweaked by our editorial board. We want our publication to be really good! But our authors do get the hang of things; I love watching their essays evolve as each draft gets posted and gets better and better.

    Having worked on Segullah for a while, and participated in the editing process, I can say that I am to the point where, if someone actually takes the time to really think about something I've written, and make extensive comments to help me (the way you did with your students, Julie) I am just so grateful for their time. Part of me still cringes, but mostly I am grateful they saved me and helped me improve my writing.

    But it takes trust: you have to trust your editor's vision, and trust the revising process. Trust that you can let go of the draft you've sweated over, and that the new version will be even better than the one you fell in love with.

    jendoop, I know the feeling. Sometimes time away from an essay helps me with that. Then when I come back to it, I can see it more clearly.

    Sharlee, I love those quotes. Wouldn't you love to see all the versions of a Toni Morrison book?

    Thanks everyone! And if anyone would like to share things that help them as they revise, I'm all ears.

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  7. great post- i think so much is learned in revision, Osmetimes we are so enmeshed in our own writing- we write through a given lens– it helps to have others look at it from different angles and tell you what needs work

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  8. I know revising is true.

    And this is why I am a much better blogger than essayist. With blogging you can keep revising forever if you'd like. I can't bear to read myself published because it is too tempting to grab the red pencil and have my way with the printed piece. And by then it's just much too late…

    Looking forward to reading your piece in Irreantum, Emily.

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  9. Thanks, Leslie, Dalene, and Kathy :-).

    Dalene, that's interesting, the changeableness of blogs makes them always subject to revision and improvement. I had not thought of it that way, but it's true.

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