When I was in high school I stared at the red, failing grade of an essay I had written for English class, trying to read the scribbled comments my teacher had given me so I could somehow connect the grade to my writing. I thought I had understood the prompt. I thought I had studied. I thought I had managed my time well.
That was the problem. The essay was written in class and since our periods were only forty minutes long, I had that short amount of time to read a passage and write a cohesive five-paragraph essay in that time. The essay was only going to be as good as I was in those forty minutes and then the grade was final; never to be revised again.
There were a few opportunities in high school where I was given the chance to revise essays for better grades, but those chances were few and far between and even when they did arise, I never took advantage of them. In my AP English class, my teacher was very big on revisions, but I noticed I would always revise the tests and quizzes, but I would never take advantage of revising the essays. I used to say to myself that it was because I was happy with the essays, but as I watched myself getting seventies on essays and leaving them alone, I realized that probably wasn’t true.
I was pleasantly surprised when I came to college and in-class essays became almost completely obsolete. All the papers I had to write were done on my own time. Essays in high school were sprints; no matter how you prepared for them, time was still your biggest enemy. Papers in colleges are marathons; you are responsible to train for them and you’re given a longer time to go at your own pace and get to the finish line. I liked papers much better in college, until it came to the revisions.
I found myself doing the same thing I did in high school, except these revisions were required. I would write my first draft and receive comments on it, but then when it came to the chance to revise it, the revisions would be minimal. It seems irresponsible to not take advantage of revisions when you’re getting feedback from professors and peers that can help raise your grade, but I believe I am not alone on this.
Even as I was writing more fiction, which is what I love, I still found myself burying my stories in the bottom of my desk drawer without ever revisiting them again. If the revisions were required, I would do it of course, but once the stories were done, I never touched them again.
I feel like we often grow up with the idea that words are permanent. If we write them down; they stick forever and it’s a shame to revise them. I often found myself discouraged that I would never be a writer because I couldn’t sit down and write the next great American novel during my lunch period. When comments on my paper said that my essay was “too repetitive” or “didn’t make sense” I interrupted that as meaning that they were bad.
I’m still stuck in the old habits where revisions will be at the bottom of my to-do list, but I also have a totally different outlook on revisions. No one is perfect. Even as a writing major, I often have other friends tell me that writing should be easy for me. It’s not easy for me because writing isn’t easy. William Zinsser, the author of On Writing Well had a lot to say about revising and how writing isn’t easy:
“There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods, and any method that helps you to say what you want to say is the right method for you. Some people write by day, others by night. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write their second paragraph until they fiddled endlessly with the first. But all of them are vulnerable and all of them are tense. They are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don’t just write what comes naturally. They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write.”
But sometimes, the first step between being a good writer and being a great writer is realizing that not every word you write is going to be perfect, and that revisions aren’t something to be shamed about. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.