When I was in college and in my MFA program, I wrote poems in these hard-back blue notebooks with green ruled pages. Often I would write a draft on one page, scribble through lines, write new lines, mark out words, write in new words. On the opposing page I would rewrite the poem again, scribble through some more stuff before I’d type it into the computer. In those days, typing was a big deal, so I always waited until the poem was done before trudging over to a computer lab to type it up. Cutting and pasting were hard then, requiring knowing some special functions.
Now that I’m writing prose, I’m starting on the computer instead of notebooks. But my revision process has been a handwritten affair. There’s something about putting giant x’s through section and scribbling in the margins that is more satisfying that highlighting sentences on the screen and pressing delete.
I recently read that one shouldn’t start revising a piece until one has a complete draft. That’s quite easy to do when your piece is a poem that’s only a page long. When you’re aiming for 200 pages, it’s easy to get impatient. So I violated that advice by starting to revise the first section of my piece while writing the second. But now, I’m realizing that that’s a bad idea. I need to see the whole arc of the story before I figure out if I have the pieces in the right order or if new pieces need to go in. I’m feeling like I’ll sit at Starbucks for hours one day with the whole thing printed out, a notebook by my side, and I’ll scribble and write until I’m done, as much like my revision process for poetry as possible. I might even rewrite by hand.
I used to tell students to remember what revision means, to see the work again, to see it anew, to have a new vision for it. There’s something about having a clean page to see your work anew, not like the electronic draft that sits before you on the screen and feels so final, where deleting words means they’re gone and not visible under a line or a squiggle, where you can’t feel the page or the heft of your work. If I wait until the end to revise, going back to the beginning will feel like coming at it for the first time, like a stranger, and will be more like a real re-visioning.