Wednesday, October 1, 2014


The Pains of Revising as a Perfectionist Writer

Want to know what revision feels like for a writer?

Have a baby. Love that baby. Form it, nurture it, watch it grow in all its baby beauty. Then take that baby, pull off its limbs, stick the arms where the legs should be and the head where the chest should be and the eyes where the mouth should be and just throw out the ears altogether. Then hold up your disfigured, discombobulated baby to the world, with tears in your eyes and a forced smile on your lips, and say: "Look everyone, I fixed it."

(Disclaimer: I'm not actually advocating that you do this. Please don't mess up babies.)

The process of revision has always been a gory, painful process for me. As a perfectionist who can barely put down the word "the" without considering a stronger alternative, I'm always striving to make my writing flawless the first time around. My writer's brain doesn't know the meaning of "a rough draft" -- I'm simply incapable of producing cursory, unpolished, BS-ed work. That doesn't mean all of my writing is a publishable work of genius, though. It just means that my brain doesn't know how not be OCD-thorough.

It's having this perfectionist's curse, I think, that makes revision all the more excruciating. By the time I submit a short story or essay to my teachers, I've already put an obscene amount of sleep-deprived, nail-biting hours to generate my best work. So when a class workshop ends with a page full of suggested revision notes, it's like someone has taken a pencil to my chest. It's like someone telling me, "Your best wasn't good enough."

Maybe I shouldn't take it so personally. But I don't think I'll ever enjoy being told to bring my work to the dark dungeon of revision -- and I don't think I'll ever wander there by my own choice. Revision is not at all like the actual writing process. The bittersweet, meticulous steps of delving into a story, discovering its motions, and gradually building it will never be the same as revision. For me, revision feels like throwing a dam into a river, disrupting its natural flow. This is particularly true for musically-inclined writers like myself, who work to shape sentences around a sense of rhythm. Asking me to rearrange or alter the rhythms I've made would be like asking Beethoven to rewrite his foreboding Fifth Symphony in a waltz meter -- it throws everything off.

One of the most thought-provoking -- and intimidating -- explanations for revision came from my first creative writing teacher in college. She defined it as "Re-Vision," separate from editing in that this process requires us to consider our work from a different angle, to explore other possibilities, even to the point of reshaping it to be an entirely new piece. By instinct, all of my creative molecules wanted to protest in uproar against this maxim. I wanted to say, "But once you open the door to 'other possibilities,' where does it end? How will you ever know when a piece is perfect?"

But that, my dear Self, is just the point: there is, and there never will be, perfect.

The aim of revision is not to make perfection. Revision never claims to be the successful achievement of that one, perfect, flawless version of a story or poem. Writing, like life, is limitless -- a single story could transpire in any one of a hundred million different ways. There is no right, or wrong, or better, or worse -- there is only contentment.

Writer, don't be afraid of revision. Don't take the call to explore new avenues as an insult. Take it as a challenge -- to examine yourself critically, to pull yourself out of the mud of stagnant, narrow-minded thinking. Don't see it as changing to please others. Please yourself, boldly. Learn to be content, even with your most disfigured work.

And for God's sake -- don't make it perfect.


  1. Emma,

    How in God's good name do I get to follow your blog?? Help! Please! And thank you!

    1. Glad you finally figured it out, Leah! :)