Revision: How long should it take?

I always enjoy my writing workshops at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading. This year about 100 members of the public crowded into a small theater to hear me fool around on the piano and toss out a few coins of writing wisdom.

Why do I play music and sing during a writing workshop? The answer is simple. If you traffic in adverbs and semicolons for a living, you better have an escape hatch.

I took requests: Bee Gees, Beatles, James Brown … and then ventured into the parts of the writing process: sniffing for ideas, gathering details, finding a focus, selecting the best material, planning an order, writing a draft, ending with revision.

There was time for questions. The first came from an older lady sitting near me. She had been taking lots of notes. “How long should it take to revise?”

I repeated the question aloud. “How long should it take to revise?” I stared at the ceiling. I looked her in the eye.

“Eight seconds to eight years.”

To my delight, the audience did not treat this like some Zen Koan: a mystical blurt from a fakir – or faker. They sensed there was more to come, and it went something like this:

Eight seconds: Even if there is breaking news — a convention speech — and I am covering it via Twitter, I never publish anything without a second look. For a tweet, that may result in the cutting of useless words or the rearrangement of a sentence to add a little zinger at the end. Often, it allows me to find and correct what would have been an embarrassing mistake.

Eight years: I am the author of the book “Writing Tools,” published in 2006. The first edition had 50 chapters. A 10th anniversary edition added five more. One chapter is devoted to the use of active voice; another to the effective use of the passive. During that decade, my understanding of the difference between active and passive — “Susan broke the window” vs. “The window was broken by Susan” — evolved. I used to talk about active verbs and passive verbs, but I now realize that it is the subjects not the verbs that express activity or passivity. That revision in my thinking, will lead to a revision in my prose: eight, 10, maybe 12 years after the first draft.

At the end of my little workshop — before sending them out into the sunshine with my version of “Twist and Shout” — I offered one final idea about revision. When we hear the word revision, we think of the writer looking at a draft and changing the words. But revision is much more than that and can be applied to all parts of the process.

You can revise the idea. You can revise the reporting. You can change the focus. You can go back and select other details. You can alter the order.  And, yes, you can revise the language. And get this: You can even revise your revision.

Eight seconds or eight years: Use the time well.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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