Why is extensive revision hard?

Hemingway rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms 39 times, Joyce Carol Oates considers rewriting a pleasure, and E. B. White rewrote almost everything to make it more clear.

In my last post about the writing process I glossed over the one of the biggest steps in the process: revisions. I buried the process somewhere between the writing/typing phase and the editing phase, but really it is one of the most important tasks.  Making major changes to almost everything I write helps emphasize the ideas that are more significant, persuasive, and helpful for the reader.

Revision is the hardest part of the process for me. I think it’s hard because it forces me to deal with the inadequacies of what I’ve written. How can I avoid concluding that I’m not a strong writer after reading some of the crap I’ve written? And how can I, the bad writer, possibly make improvements on this crappy writing?

Obviously I’ve made the writing process more personal than it needs to be by taking critiques of my writing as judgements about me, not the writing. My skills are weak, my thinking is confused, my ideas are shallow and unsubstantiated. Ugh. It doesn’t help that a lot of other academics do this to themselves and to one another. The more I try to use my academic work to build up my confidence and self worth, the harder it is to do the messy work of editing and revising my chapters. I have been encouraged to work harder with the promise that my confidence will improve after I’ve completed the next big unit, but there are several problems with that approach.  First, I need the confidence as a researcher/writer now to do the necessary work. Second, I’ve completed many other significant chunks of work over the years and those accomplishments haven’t added up to improving my confidence as a researcher/writer; why should anything be different this time? I do better when I build my confidence on real things—like relationships and being kind to others and especially being kind to myself—rather than temporary things like doing a good job on a difficult task. There is something about developing a detachment from the work that gives both me and the written draft much more freedom.

My efforts to edit my drafts also tend to be hampered by my desire to hold onto the draft in its current form fearful of introducing chaos which is usually part of the process of making extensive revisions. Moving things around destabilizes the text and means more work for me as I try to reconnect the pieces in the new configuration with transitions and explanatory material.

I found this post particularly useful when I began to try to reform how I approached the revision process.

One reason for this resistance is that many writers believe their own first drafts to be uniquely flawed; in other words, they think the weakness of the first draft comes from their lack of writing skill rather than from the intrinsic weakness of any first draft. As a result, they have little faith in their ability to fix what ails their writing.

This comment is spot on: that the realization that my writing has problems undermines my confidence as a writer.

The remainder of the post “Committing to Extensive Revision” is full of insight about new and better ways of thinking about the writing process, and the blog Explorations of Style has several other posts about the revision process including some specific techniques and ways of approaching the revision process.

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