Posted by: Jodi | October 25, 2010

Allegra Goodman on the Vision of Revision

I received an email containing a Wall Street Journal article written by Allegra Goodman talking about revision and thought it was an excellent topic to share on a Monday Morning.  A hat tip goes to my lovely Aunt Dianne in Belgium – she finds me the most delightful things!

As a girl, Allegra craved a book that would explain the art of writing in the same concise way that they taught her other subjects.  Finally, she stumbled across a book that did just that in Aileen Ward’s biography, “John Keats: The Making of Poet.”

Not only did she learn about Keat’s life, she also learned about his writing process.  Keat’s was never satisfied with his first attempt, he revised each line to be stronger and better.  In her words she learned, “Even the great ones work for greatness.”  The idea of not having to write perfectly from the beginning, was liberating.  Suddenly, anyone with a with little talent and plenty of hard work could be a writer.

The biggest point that Allegra makes is about unraveling the myth of the art of writing being a ‘”matter of instinct.”  Many believe that, as artists, the first thing that hits the page is the most immediate and fresh.  What they may not recognize is that it is also conventional.  Revision isn’t just for essays or school assignments, fiction greatly benefits from it as well.

Revision give us the chance to  clarify our ideas by finding stronger words to describe our thoughts, cutting redundancies, and eliminating clichés.

I find that it is during revision that I can make my thoughts shine and take on a life of their own.  The manuscript often reveals facts that I need to know about my characters or scenes.  I can then go back and add important details, helping the reader better experience my world.  I write my rough drafts with the same finesse as a chain saw; sloppy, quick, and to the point.  Revision is like fine carpenters tools, whittling away the bits that obscure the art beneath.

Don’t take my word for it – read Allegra Goodman’s article.



  1. I’d like to look up that book–thanks. Revising is like frosting a cake–you can cover up all those flaws; straighten it out, enhance the flavour and send it over-the-top. No one wants to go to a party and have a slice of a plain slab.

    • Unless it’s cheesecake… mmmmm … cheesecake…
      You are absolutely right, and a beautiful cake is a lot easier to sell!

  2. …AND, Jodi, revision sounds much nicer than rewriting or editing. It sounds… uplifting.

    Good post.

    • Doesn’t matter what you call it – it still means work.

  3. How fun would it be to find Keats’ early drafts of something now considered iconic like “Ode on a Grecian Urn”? Of course, we never would, because most writers (myself included) do everything within their power to make sure such early efforts never see the light of day. I don’t just trash old drafts once the next one is done, I shred ’em!

    • I find it surprising that you shred, but then again I keep everything. I’m planning on actually printing out my first official draft at the end of the week and then locking it in a drawer during NaNoWriMo. It’s still far from a point were I can let anyone read it, but it’s getting closer.

  4. How did Michaelangelo carve David? By chipping away everything that didn’t belong.

    So, too, must writers smooth their work with a loving caress to remove “bits that obscure the art beneath.” 🙂

    • Michelangelo said he was liberating the figure from the marble. Perhaps writers use revision to liberate the story.

    • And, if we slip, and carve out too big a chunk . . . we can put it back. No harm done.

    • Glad you liked the analogy, I thought it was pretty good! Thankfully a manuscript is more forgiving than either wood or marble.

  5. Cool article! And I have to say, writing is so much neater than woodworking; no sawdust or woodchips to clean up after the revisions are done. Well… not unless the revision went very, very badly. 😀

    • You got me laughing out loud! I sure hope the next round of revisions don’t go that poorly.


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