I’ve been taught to teach my students that revising is like “radical surgery” and it really can be, when you think about it. What many people don’t like about writing or why they don’t think they are good writers is that it is frustrating and difficult to get what we want to say onto paper or a computer screen in exactly the right way. There is often a disconnect between our ideas and what we actually produce. From our brain to our finger tips, whether we use a pen or a keyboard, the words get lost, or changed, or don’t seem to fit anymore. We look at the words staring back at us and think that they aren’t saying what we meant them to and we have to fix them somehow. But, that is what writing, particularly good writing, is all about. It is a process. Writing is all about rewriting and revising.
So, the best thing that I think we can do as writers, and what works for me most of the time, is to write whatever you are thinking or trying to say…leave spaces and dashes — and underline words you know you aren’t crazy about. Circle things you want to expand upon. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar or punctuation. If you are writing with pen and paper, just be neat enough so that when you come back to it, you can actually tell what the words are. (There have been far too many times when I have jotted brilliant ideas down and come back to them only to be unable to decipher my scribbles.) Just get your ideas down as closely as you can to what you want to say. Then, leave it alone.
Like when making soup and you put all the ingredients in the pot and leave them to simmer, you have to leave what you’ve written – and not just physically, but your thoughts need to have completely left the topic and the words, too. The words need a chance to meld together without your presence and combine into what the draft truly is, not what you think it is or want it to be. Take a break from the piece completely. Then, you can come back to the draft with fresh eyes, see it more clearly, and be ready to get rid of most of what you wrote.
That might sound excruciating and counterproductive, but that is how it works. Good writing is what is left after all of the awkward phrases and wrong words are omitted or replaced. Choosing which phrases or words need to be omitted or changed can be one of the most challenging parts. One of the most helpful ways to decide what needs to be changed is to “listen” to the words and see how they sound. Read what you have written out loud to yourself. (I have even heard of some people who read with their faces as close to a wall surface as possible so that the sound of the writing is “bounced back” at them and they get a better sense of what they have written. I don’t do this myself, but I may try it the next time I am working on something that is giving me trouble.) Read each sentence and then each paragraph, one at a time, and really examine them. Decide what you don’t need, change what you can, and add what is missing. Then, go back to the beginning and do it again.
Once you have read through and made as many changes as you can, hopefully what you will have is a draft that is much more closely resembling what you meant to say originally. But, you are still not finished. Give this revised draft to someone else to read (or a few someones if you can) and really “workshop” the piece. You will test your own judgment and your interpretation of what you have written when you see if other people interpret it the same way. Take what they say into consideration, and revise again. (NOTE: The feedback and criticism you receive is important, but remember you are the writer. As you make revisions, be careful that you don’t make any changes that you feel compromise what you intend for your piece to be.)
Then, after you have incorporated the revisions suggested by other people, start at the beginning and read it again to yourself and revise what you need to. I can’t exactly say how many times you will need to do this because it depends on how developed your first draft was, how much you have revised each time you read the piece, how many people you “workshop” the piece with, and so many different factors. Some pieces will require much more revision than others. Some writers revise much more than others. The point is that what you end up with will most likely look nothing at all like what the first draft looked like, but will most likely resemble what you had intended it to be from the beginning. What you will finally have is the product of the process, and that is good writing.