Why I Don’t Teach Revision

13641974Short answer: I never learned how to.

Long answer: I never learned how to teach anything, really. Most collegiate teaching begins as stabs in the dark by people who believe they can do but don’t yet know how to get others to do. But while I eventually picked up how to teach, say, scene or voice or character or structure, any assignments, texts, or exercises to get students to think about revision have escaped me.

Also, there’s no time. Requiring students to conceive, write, and revise a full-length essay within the 15 weeks of a semester is yet another instance of the academy doing its best/worst to fit the messy idiosyncrasies of writing processes within its arbitrary timeframes and practices. It’s practice that will be unuseful not only in their other classes[*]
but also in their careers, should they go on to be writers.

Within 15 weeks, amid other assignments and work to focus on, the messy, idiosyncratic process of revision defaults to what Carol Bly calls “literary fixing”, i.e., showing in that scene more than you told in the first draft, or keeping the point of view consistently close to the central character, or making sure you don’t leap into the present tense without warrant.

Here’s the thing about teaching this kind of “revision” in the academy: it’s really good at getting students to practice technique. What it’s not good at is articulated well in Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s Good Prose, one of the better books on writing I’ve read in years:

I remember in college reading [Fitzgerald’s] The Last Tycoon and studying a note that he left in the manuscript: “Rewrite from mood. Has become stilted with rewriting. Don’t look—rewrite from mood.” I reread those lines so often, trying to understand them, that they stuck in my memory. Fitzgerald knew that there are at least two kinds of rewriting. The first is trying to fix what you’ve already written, but doing this can keep you from facing up to the second kind, from figuring out the essential thing you’re trying to do and looking for better ways to tell your story. If Fitzgerald had been advising a young writer and not himself, he might have said, “Rewrite from principle,” or “Don’t just push the same old stuff around. Throw it away and start over.” In any case, a lot of learning how to be edited was for me learning the necessity of this second kind of rewriting […].

My emphasis. Revision as it’s taught in the academy—often meant to be performed over a number of weeks based on whatever consensus one’s peers came to in workshop—isn’t just unuseful practice, it’s detrimental to the most important part of the process: figuring out the essential thing you are trying to do. This is markedly different from figuring out how to improve what you’ve done.

Sometimes, what you’ve done isn’t worth the trouble. Throw it away and start over. If you insist on keeping it, knowing this distinction between the kinds of rewriting is your best bet. Also: make your own schedule.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. This is something composition teachers refuse to stop insisting. The idea behind teaching revision is that it teaches students that writing is a process not a product, and while this is true for writers who get to set their own deadlines it’s not true for those who don’t, and it’s very much untrue for students who have, say, 4 major papers to write over the course of the term in one class alone, each of which papers has to be scheduled amid assignments for three or four other classes. And given the nature of writing assignments in classes that aren’t Comp 101, this kind of careful revision process won’t, I’m convinced, result in a better grade. Better to teach students how to think critically and write clearly, which is hard enough of an endeavor to waste their time on “radical revision” practices that are presented as universally applicable but—if we believe anything about the writing process—can’t possibly be so.

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