How to Edit Your Own Writing III: Put It Away

During orientation of my first year of college, my advisor told his group of quivering advisees to rewrite each essay three times. “And then,” he added, “when you’re sure it’s perfect, rewrite it again.”

This recommendation made little sense to me. I was very nervous about college, particularly with all the writing expected, and this made me even more anxious. Nevertheless, I tried it. Once. I dutifully copied (by hand; we didn’t have PCs then) an English essay three times, writing basically the same thing over and over. I think I changed some punctuation and a word here and there. But the third copy was essentially the same as the first. This process seemed pointless.

And it was pointless—because I didn’t understand what revision was.

Let’s look at the word, re-vision: to look at again, to see in a new way. I wasn’t doing that when I copied the English essay over and over. For one, I didn’t put the essay away. I didn’t leave it, forget about it for a while, let my subconscious mind work on it. When you leave a piece of writing (or of any type of creative work), part of your mind still mulls it over. I didn’t give myself a chance to either be surprised by anything I had written or to go any deeper. Nor did I get the chance to see if maybe the fifth paragraph might work better earlier in the paper, for instance.

I’m not sure how I learned to revise, really. Some of it is developmental; your brain has to be cognitively mature enough to visualize the flow of your argument (all essays of arguments of a sort). Some of it is practice; if you write enough and pay attention to the feedback you get, you learn to see your work through your audience’s (often your professors’) eyes. Some of it is getting help. Take your half-written essay to your professor during an office hour and share it; he or she will help you figure out where to go (and likely tell you if that fifth paragraph should be earlier).

You know how people often say they think of the perfect retort too late to say it? Well, when you’re writing, give yourself enough time for that perfect word, phrase, sentence, idea, example, argument, whatever to be included. Put it away for a while.