|Revision and editing are
(Pedagogy) Philosophy and Nonsense
Thoughts about writing, education, and experience Presented by Forrest D. Poston
The first goal of teaching is to strengthen, deepen and refine our intrinsic love of learning. All other goals and all methods must stem from that idea. Any that do not support that goal must at least be questioned and adjusted, if not eliminated. Otherwise, we are not teaching but training.
Mind: re-see, re-think, refine.
Four Meanings of Life
Godot and the Great Pumpkin
A Major is More Minor Than
The Poetry Process (A look at 4 versions of a poem.)
Thoughts About Picking a Major
Quick Points About Education
Quick Points About Writing
Reading Poetry and Cloud Watching
Using an Audience
What Makes a Story True?
What's the Subject of This Class? (Being revised.)
Writing and Einstein (The Difference Between Information and Meaning)
Writing and the Goldilocks Dilemma
Links to Other Sites
Forrest D. Poston
Through my undergraduate days, I was one of those people who wrote papers in one draft the night before they were due, sometimes the morning they were due for an afternoon class. And that was back in the ancient days with a typewriter, which made revision almost entirely out of the question. In one economics paper, I changed my opinion five times while writing, and in each case I simply worked the shift into the writing as if it were intentional. Getting an 'A' on that paper was funny at the time. A few years later, a few lines of poetry came to mind quite unexpectedly, and about an hour later I had a complete poem. That lead to a rush of poetry over the next several years, always with the same pattern of inspiration into poem in a matter of minutes. Like many such young writers, I thought this was how poetry was supposed to be written, and changes would somehow spoil the purity and truth of the poem. That's the kind of thinking that makes "young and foolish" go together.
The truth was that I didn't really understand either writing or revision. The problem was that my teachers either didn't understand them either or expressed their understanding quite poorly. Only my students were eventually able to help me see the power and possibilities. I had at least managed to realize that most of the writing we do is an utter waste of time because its only reason for being is to please the teacher enough to get a grade and move on to the next assignment or next level, what I call "cow writing." Watch cows out in the field for a while, and you'll realize that about all they do is take material in one end, drop material out the other, and keep walking. We have no greater incentive to revise what we drop onto paper than the cows have to revise what they drop in the meadow.
I've found that many young writers share the seemingly mystical attitude toward their poetry, even their prose when it's not written for a class. When compared to cow writing, even the sophomoric drivel I was writing as an undergraduate appeared somehow pure, true at least in the sense that it was my writing, my purpose, done only because I felt the desire to do so. However, a little honesty in origin and purpose doesn't make up for bad writing. An honest cow pattie is still a cow pattie. Fortunately, it turns out that there are layers upon layers of writing, meaning, and understanding to be discovered with just a few adjustments in attitude and purpose, changes that make the writing process more of an adventure than ever before and give at least a little truth and purity to the writing we do only because we must. As it turns out, even cow writing provides fertilizer.
Where Writing Comes From
Writing can be done with the conscious mind or the subconscious, but getting the extra depth and meaning (writing the will affect both the reader and the writer), requires cooperation among the different levels and aspects of the mind. our social and educational systems tend to emphasize only the conscious mind, usually a fairly narrow range involved with short-term memorization and following rules. That makes cooperation a difficult proposition, and the subconscious aspects tend to be restrained. Not surprisingly, the conscious mind gets a superiority complex, and the subconscious gets miffed. Internal communication becomes rare and understanding tenuous. In a sense, the problem is that people don't talk to themselves nearly enough.
Once in a while, the subconscious gets an idea to the surface, and the writing comes tumbling out almost as if it were coming from another person or divine inspiration. That also reinforces the feeling that this writing is special, sacred, inviolate. After all, if the writing didn't come from me, who am I to change it? I can't prove, of course, that you aren't in touch with the common unconscious or the spirit of Mark Twain, and I'm fairly open-minded about even those possibilities. But unless those uncommon circumstances can be proven, we're better off working with the more likely situation first. There are quite enough quirks within the mind to keep us busy indefinitely without looking to the outer ranges, so we'll work on the premise that your own subconscious is the source of your inspiration. In that case, you have the right and probably the need to work with the ideas in ways that will refine and clarify them for yourself as well as others.
If you've been fortunate enough to have ideas overflow onto paper or into your computer, what do you do with them next. Just how does a writer refine inspiration? The writing probably looks rather good to you, honest, accurate and complete, but that appearance is likely to be an illusion, even the honesty. If your conscious and subconscious haven't been speaking to one another on a regular basis, you shouldn't expect them to do it very well at first. The problem is that since the writing cam out of you, at least part of you knows what you mean, and you won't notice the slips, gaps, and uncrossable chasms until someone rubs your nose in them. It's better for you if that someone is you, not your teacher.
Applying the Conscious Mind
There are times when the writing doesn't even start well, and you have to prime the subconscious, but for this essay we'll pretend that you've already been overwhelmed by an idea that simply poured out. Now some jerk like me wants you to mess with it. You think it's pure, and I think it's a cow pattie, but either way I'm asking you to stir it, sort it, and treat it like silly putty. Remember that writing is a game, one of the greatest games ever invented, where you can twist and stretch ideas until they break, even further if you feel like it. Like any game, there are rules and variations. You don't have to follow them, and you can make up your own as you go. The only rule that comes close to being unbreakable is simply that good writing gets its point across effectively, and there are a fair number of variations on just what that rule may mean. What I'm offering here are some fairly simple steps, so simple that they seem mundane or downright boring, but when you apply them openly and keep following the trail of your idea, some amazing and potentially frightening things occur.
The process mostly involves asking questions, talking to the writing. Since we're assuming that this particular writing has slipped out of the subconscious, that also means that you're talking to your subconscious through the writing, which will help develop the writing while also improving the relationship between the conscious and subconscious. The first five questions are a familiar group that have been used in journalism for several generations, but they still apply to that field as much as ever, and I've learned they can be quite useful in any type of writing. The questions are: who, what, when, where, and how. To that list I add two real kickers: why and so what.
There's no set order in which the questions must be asked, but at any time with a given draft there's probably one question that will be most helpful. Start with whichever question you wish, but be certain to ask each question at least once. If you have to write the questions at the top of the draft and check them off as you ask each one, then do so. Be careful not to try dealing with more than one question at a time. Don't ask, "Have I made who and why clear and strong enough?" "Have I made the 'who' clear and strong enough?" And keep in mind that there may be more than one 'who' to deal with, or more than one 'what,' 'how,' etc. It's also possible that in a given draft or subject certain questions won't really matter. If that's the answer you find when you ask the question, fine, but ask the question before merely assuming it doesn't matter.
And it may sound silly, but try asking the questions out loud. Actually talk to your paper. In one of the many quirks of the human mind, the physical act of asking a question often helps reveal the answer. Something about putting the question outside of ourselves, giving it physical existence outside the mind, creates additional perspective. If you can't bring yourself to ask the questions out loud, at least write them down. The more experience you develop, the more you may be able to get away with doing more in your head again, but whenever you run into problems, go back to the basics of out loud and write it down.
Don't get in a hurry. Trying to ask all the questions at once may appear faster, but you'll miss a lot, and there are side benefits to asking the questions one at a time that will deepen the writing while actually saving time. Keep in mind that "draft" doesn't have to mean that you actually write everything again. If you write "who" at the top of the page, then make a few notations in the margins, that's a draft. Write "so what" at the top, make a few more notations, and that's another draft. Most students, even many experienced writers, are controlled by the language, but you don't have to be. A draft is what you say it is. A "paper" is what you say it is. Much of writing is a mind game that you play with yourself. Learn to manipulate the language so that it helps you in that game, and don't let your ideas become rigid. That's when language and mind become traps.
If possible, I do suggest doing this type of revision on paper, not just on a computer screen. There are still psychological advantages to being able to look over a page of writing or refer between pages without having to scroll back and forth. Whenever you do on-screen revision, I suggest saving a copy of the old version first, then save the new version with a name that helps you track the revision process. Title a folder with the working title of the paper, and save drafts within that folder so they don't get mixed up with other works. Then, you can title a draft "whodraft.a". Keep all the versions at least until that assignment is turned in, but if space permits, keep them indefinitely. As a developing writer, you may find that comparing those drafts to each other and to later writing will be quite useful for seeing and understading how the writing process is developing for you. Also, there may well be times when you want to see an earlier version because something you cut before would fit now...if you can find it. You may also find that when you're stuck for a writing idea, something in the earlier work may be ready to develop in ways that you didn't see before. An old dead end will sometimes be a new open road.
other techniques for revision that I'll discuss in other
essays as I develop the site. Overall, the
old advice of keep it simple applies. In this
case, it means don't try to solve all the problems in a
single draft. One problem, one
draft. When you look back, you'll probably
find that the improvements solved some of the other
problems anyway. Revising can be painful when
you have to cut your favorite line, but make friends
with the writing, and play with the ideas. A
revision is an exploration, hopefully more refined than
the exploration before, but it's still
experimental. Play and take
chances. See what you think of the results,
and talk it over with the writing, then play some
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Other Essays and Poetry
Something Somewhat Vaguely Like a Resume
Alec Kirby, Memories of an Earnest Imp
Being Like Children
Beyond the Genes (Dad)
The Blessing and the Blues
Bookin' Down Brown Street
The Cat With a Bucket List
David and the Revelation
The Dawn, the Dark, and the Horse I Didn't Ride In On (an odd, meandering, semi-romantic story)
Getting a Clue
Ghost Dancer in the Twilight Zone
The Hair Connection and the Nature of Choices
I Believe in Capra
The Mug, the Magic, and the Mistake
Roto, Rooter and the Drainy Day
Sadie on the Bridge
Trumpet Player, USDA Approved
The Poetry Process
Links to Other Sites