Revision as Sculpture

Short Story RevisionsA lot of students have come to me lately with papers deep in revision. “I’m really sorry for the mess,” they say. They set down a packet of stapled pages, all scrawled over with notes. Entire lines crossed out. Marginalia thicker than printed text. “Can you still read it?”

“Are you kidding?” I ask them. “This is my favorite part of the process. I wish more people would do this kind of revision.”

Because revision, when done well, is all about carving away. Cutting. Hacking. Slicing. Without mercy. You have to cut and cut and cut until you get down to the thudding heart of what you’re trying to say.

Then, and only then, do you add anything back in.

I’ve lately been deep into revisions with the short story I photographed above. I love to compare the writing process to making pottery or sculpture. The first drafts are simply the act of making clay, of piling it onto the wheel. Only after you’ve got pages of notes and a complete first draft can you start the real work. The sculpting.

I’ve been told writers hate cutting. But I find it liberating. Find out what you need to say. Cut the rest. Then say it.

Simple enough. It just takes consistent, dedicated practice.

And that page I covered with notes in my last draft?

I cut it.

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