When I first started writing, I thought the process was simple: First, I sit down and write a bad rough draft over the course of a few winter months, possibly in a snowed-in haunted Colorado hotel. Then, I read through it again and make extensive revisions. Then, I read through it a third and final time to make smaller, cosmetic revisions. Then, the final draft goes out to editors and journals for just shy of an eternity. Writing is almost always discussed as primary, and revision as the after-hours, secondary work. Or, the other way around, revision is portrayed as tedious, noncreative work, challenging only because it is time-consuming, as opposed to writing, which is the entire creative process.
Now that I have dissected, deleted, severed, multiplied, and brutalized a few dozen story drafts in the after-writing process of revision, I have realized how messy these two tasks, writing and revision, actually are. Writers talk about writing as if the best stories we can produce are done with as little revision as possible. We say “I wrote this essay, and here’s my process.” We say “While I was writing this.” We say “I am a writer.” We never say “I am a reviser,” even though we (should) spend the bulk of our creative time revising our work.
It’s easy to say that writing and revision are synonymous because they are part and parcel. But I think there is a subtle difference. We write for the present but revise for the future. We write in the moment, but revise across time. We work under the assumption that the hardest part of the process is finding inspiration and then typing it up, and the rest is smooth but tedious polishing. But I think the opposite is true. The hardest part of writing is revising. Ideas come and build up, and when they don’t, we have forty thousand writing exercises and freewriting prompts to help with that.
What if we used the same language to talk about revision? What if we had entire workshops devoted to revision exercises, revision prompts, and revision craft talks? Creative revising is a much more useful and accurate description of the process.
Revision, at least, should be discussed as more than an afterthought. It is the bulk of the work involved, and we should discuss it with the same sense of working pleasure we use when talking about writing. Revision requires as much, if not more, creativity.
Writing is the discovery of a crime, and revision is the entire investigation, arrest, and legal proceedings, not to mention the healing process that follows. We lose nothing by placing revision at the forefront of our discussions about writing. The only thing we have to lose is our notion that revision is secondary.