We enter the Christmas season at the same time that I and my students are entering revision season. My students are preparing significant revisions of essays they’ve written this semester, while I’ve just finished going through my editor’s notes for my new novel, Late One Night, that’s coming out in May. Who knows what will happen to that book once it’s out in the world. What I do know, however, is how a good editor always makes a book better. In the writing workshop, our aim is to be those good editors for everyone who brings work to the table.
I’ve told my students that by now they should know much more about their essays than they did when they wrote them. I’ve asked them to think about the last moves of the essays, the places where they land. Those places should be moments of inevitable surprises. By that, I mean the essays should land places that neither we, nor the writers, could have predicted—places where something coheres, or opens up into new territory, or both; places where the writer’s emotional and intellectual engagement with the material deepens. In revision, this may mean writing a new end, or it may mean drawing more out of the end that we’ve already written. Either way, the essay should give us a little shock of recognition. Oh, we say. So this is where we were heading all along.
Once the end is in place, we should go back to the beginning. How does the opening take steps toward the ending? The ending of a good piece is always present, though probably submerged, in the opening. We need to ask ourselves how our openings are already pointing to the endings in covert ways. I think essayists work best when they write from a position of not knowing. Even if we figure out halfway through the essay what the final move will be, we need to shape the essay so it seems that we arrive at the place of knowing exactly when the reader does.
Then we need to think about each section of the essay, and we need to ask ourselves how it’s contributing to the end. What work is it doing? Does it need to be deepened or expanded? Does it need to be cut? We can ask ourselves, “What am I not yet saying here that needs to be said?” Or, “What am I not asking here that needs to be asked?”
Finally, we need to pay attention at the sentence level. We need to tighten and invigorate. Are the nouns precise? The verbs strong and active? We need to listen to the music our sentences make. Are they short when they need to be, more expansive when the expression calls for it? I have a tendency to string clauses together with coordinating conjunctions. Knowing that quirk of mine allows me to look for moments in the revision when the sentences need to be shorter and more terse.
We all have these tendencies. Maybe we have particular sentence structures that we favor. Maybe we have certain phrases that we like to use. The more we revise, the more we become aware of our idiosyncrasies and the more we can be on guard against them.
A good revision is a deepening. A good revision creates an experience of illumination for both the reader and the writer. Knowing where we’re going in those final drafts can keep us on track as we make sure that everything sticks to the places we’ve discovered we need to go.