How Writers Can Learn From Documented Cases of Revision

Perhaps my favorite book is called “Authors at Work.” Published by Grolier in 1957, it contains 71 photos of original manuscript pages by famous authors. You can see, for example, where poet Percy Bysshe Shelley crosses out the middle word of “To the Skylark” and revises it to “To a Skylark.” I’ve used that revision — from “the” to “a” — many times to persuade young writers that the little changes in a text can mean a lot.

But it has also occurred to me that if Shelley were writing today using a computer, his remarkable revision would probably be lost forever. I know that it is possible to track changes in a story, but my general feeling is that the disappearance of hand-written revisions has been a loss to the writing and learning culture.

That feeling was intensified recently with my purchase of the book “Songs in the Rough,” containing dozens of photographs of the rough hand-written drafts of well-known popular songs. It includes the story of Tommy Durden, arriving at the house of his co-writer Mae Boren Axton, with a piece from the newspaper stating that a well-dressed man committed suicide, leaving the note “I walk a lonely street.”

That phrase became a famous line in the Elvis Presley hit “Heartbreak Hotel.” In the first draft, we see these lines:

“Since my baby left me I’ve got a new place to dwell
I walk down a lonely street to Heartbreak Hotel.”

Words are crossed out on the manuscript, others are added, giving us:

“Since my baby left me I found a new place to dwell
Down at the end of ‘Lonely Street’ to ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’”

I love those revisions. “Found” adds a back-story not suggested by “got.” The addition of “the end of” adds to the sense of desperation, as does turning lonely street into a proper name.

Even more dramatic were Woody Guthrie’s revisions of the song that I know as “This Land Is Your Land.” Disgusted by the optimistic patriotism of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” Guthrie imagined his new anthem as an answer song and titled it “God Blessed America,” changing the present tense to the past. Each stanza in the original was ended by “God blessed America for me,” a line that becomes increasingly ironic as the narrative of life in the Depression gets bleaker:

“One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people –
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.”

That’s a much darker song than the one that has come down to us. The sense that it’s an answer song has been lost.

If you were my teacher, you could not understand my writing without reference to my revisions. At least on this story, those revisions have “disappeared.” There are ways out of this box though they may seem more reactionary than progressive.

An editor can ask a writer to mark changes by hand on a paper copy of a story so those changes are immediately visible and available for consultation and debate. A teacher can do the same, or even ask students to do some drafting and revision by longhand.

I love my computer because it removes forever the donkey work of re-copying. So, yes, you’ll have to pry my mouse out of my cold dead hand. But let’s keep finding ways to preserve great revisions and to inspire more.

Many of us work at a physical distance from our editors. I can see the editors of this column from my office door. But my literary agent and my book editors work a thousand miles away. For my current project, revisions have occurred both electronically and manually.

Using the “track changes” function on Word or Google docs, writer and editor can become partners in revising and improving a chapter. But my copy editor, the eagle-eyed Marie Salter, shipped me my manuscript back with hundreds of hand-written corrections, questions, and suggestions written in the margins. Because I can see the work of her hand, I feel that I can better understand her thinking process, which often leads me to the best kind of revisions.

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