Revisions, and making the most of them

by Alex Yuschik

One of the cooler things I did in college was take a poetry workshop class. I did it for fun, because I was majoring in math and needed a class not to drive me crazy, but it ended up being one of the best decisions I made for my writing career.

The workshop was led by an American poet, Jim Daniels. (Look him up, one of his poems is actually on the roof of a race car, which is a pretty damn cool benchmark for anyone interested in publishing to achieve.) We did the usual, here’s my weekly poem read-a-loud-and-critique, everyone writes what they think of everyone else’s poems down and hands their thoughts back to the author, and then one of our assignments was to revise.

Not just change a few words, fix up the stanzas, or correct the typoes we’d missed, and make sure we took all our classmates’ comments into account, whether we chose to follow them or not. We were warned that we would not get much credit for doing a revision like that. He wanted us to re-imagine the poem, go back to the seed of the idea and try to reinvent it, change everything to make the poem work smoother, better, and experiment with it.

This was more or less alien and by the time the first revision came around, most people kinda balked at it. I wasn’t sure what to think. I mean, I liked my first draft. It wasn’t as strong as I thought it could be, but I didn’t want to rip it up and have to start over. I changed some things, reworked a middle section, but kept most things the same. When I started looking at what other people did, then I realized where the strength in this approach lay.

My bestie had completely restructured her poem, writing something almost entirely new, and it was awesome. The class knew what she’d been trying to go for in the last draft, and she used some feedback as a springboard to do cool things with it, things that no one had told her to do or suggested, but that she just thought of while she was going through it again. The most shocking thing during this round of first revisions, though, came from a guy who changed two words in his page and a half monster epic. Two. Not two stanzas. Two adjectives. He just shrugged and said that he didn’t think the comments “got” his poem and that he’d changed all he thought he needed to.

When I looked at whose revisions had seen them grow more as a writer, I was really envious of my friend. And then the next time this assignment came around, I made sure that I experimented and re-worked all my stuff, too.

But it’s not like keeping things the same is wrong (it is so not). Sometimes you fight for what you like. But other times, you have to remember that you can just hit “Save As” and let yourself go wild. No one says that you have to keep every revision.

What worries me when I see people being so defensive about their work that they’re becoming afraid to try something new. Don’t be. Never be. Being creative means trying new things. It’s scary, but you have to go for it. That’s why you got into this writing thing, right? You want to create, and creating means taking risks.

After the class ended, my friend and I started referring to revisions in two forms: normal revisions, where you changed what people told you was wrong and corrected obvious things but kept the second draft about the same, and then Jim Daniels revisions, wherein you got crazy and experimented and rewrote the whole thing differently, but in a way that got your idea better than the first. It became an in-joke while we were critiquing each other’s poems to send to literary journals: do you think this needs a revision or like, a Jim Daniels revision?

Working in publishing has given me a sweet opportunity to see this happen in prose, too. I’ve seen an agent suggest edits and seen revisions come back lukewarm and only changing what the edits wanted. And then I’ve seen edits go out that an author nails and then makes the story exponentially better by fixing or improving something that I didn’t even notice before and it blows me out of the water.

This is why people ask you to take your time on revisions– it’s not because they don’t want to read your work again, it’s because thinking all this stuff out, re-imagining and re-inventing stuff takes time.

As always, as the creator, it’s up to you what you want to do. If you think this is the kind of revision where you only need to change a few things, then awesome! it’s great to be that close to being done. But more often than not, I think that it’s important to look at the distance between where the work is and where it needs to be and try to lessen that with a grander gesture. Because when someone gives you a chance for an R&R, or you get edit notes back from an editor you’re stoked to work with, you want to blow them out of the water, right?

Push yourself. Take chances, and see where the revisions take you.

Alex Yuschik has interned for Mary Kole at Movable Type Management and Theresa Cole at Entangled Publishing. Currently, she writes, studies, blogs at letters & numbers and the Secret Life of Writers, and is really liking the cello part in this song.