Revising: from the Latin ‘to look at again’

ORIGIN mid 16th cent. (in the sense [look again or repeatedly (at)] ): from French réviser ‘look at,’ or Latin revisere ‘look at again,’ from re- ‘again’ + visere (intensive form of videre ‘to see’ ).

I’m beginning a final revise on my YA manuscript Chasing at the Surface in preparation for making it submission-ready for my agent. This is a story I began writing in 2007 and I’ve kept print-outs of each set that I thought was “finished.” Pulling the latest version out this weekend got me thinking about how often and how extensively we revise our work.

Or more pointedly, how do we learn to “look” at the stories we’ve written and what do we see when we do?Re-reading one’s early drafts can be instructive. I have five complete draft versions of Chasing, but I’m sure there were many more partial revisions that never made it to a print-out. A quick comparison of the first page of each showed pretty dramatic changes, which I expected, but other revisions surprised me. I found some sections where I’d written a passage one way in draft 1, changed it in draft 2, then changed it back to its original form in draft 3, almost to a word exactly. I had no clue I’d done this. I also found edits that almost seemed pointless: changing “she thought again…” to “again, she thought…”

What’s going on here? Surely, looked at individually, these tiny changes may seem insignificant. But incrementally, each time you revise, writers tend to “look again” at different layers of a story: voice, phrasing, diction, not to mention structure, character and plot. Some writers do this consciously, basically “reading” their drafts through with one revision goal only in mind. They may be looking at character development perhaps, or story arc, or consistent voice—and ignoring other areas that clearly need revising until later drafts.

When we look at revision as a building block to making a story rather than a necessary evil, everything changes. Fear and impatience fade. The method becomes more akin to the craft of a visual artist—an oil painter for example, who lays down one layer of paint, then needs to wait for it to dry before she can evaluate whether another layer needs to or can be added—a forced delay that offers perspective and benefits the finished whole in the end.

2 thoughts on “Revising: from the Latin ‘to look at again’

  1. Your post inspired me to take a look through the many folders worth of revision notes I’ve left stacked on my desk. It *is* funny how many places I changed seemingly tiny details back and forth over the past few months!

    Good note on forced delay giving a better perspective. Now if only I could make myself learn to love revision…


  2. Hi Kelly…it seems to me it makes a bit more sense in poetry, since every word has to be so perfect (or so I’m told!) One writer, I don’t recall who, likened learning to love revision to learning to love your in-laws. Now that puts me at a HUGE disadvantage!


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