"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Revision/Repentance: Sorting Through a Contrast

July 15th, 2012 by

This past week involved a struggle with a writing project. I’m working on a novel, and after getting some great feedback on it last week (see last blog), I found myself going back to the drawing board on a few things. Writing is like that, though. I’m used to it. Some people might look at this as similar to “repentance” (I say this because it is common to look at having to do something over again as a form of punishment). But I try to avoid attributing moral or spiritual guilt where none exists (more about this later in the blog). And I don’t rewrite to cover errors or mistakes, as though I’m working on a math problem; I rewrite because I’m learning more about the material I’m working on. Revision, or re-seeing, concerns getting closer to the vision I had for writing in the first place. Nancy Sommers, a Composition specialist, calls this part of the writing process, when we return to earlier stages of the process, “recursive.” That is, it involves returning to earlier stages of a writing process as a part of moving forward toward a better draft.

Most of my work this week could be called recursive. I literally went back to the drawing board, to stage one: I added a new chapter, which I then spent most of the week writing and giving shape to. But in writing this chapter, I also learned more about other parts of the book I’ve already written, and I also found myself adding new scenes to other chapters already written. Many people might look at that as failure, or as too much work. But my understanding of the world of my novel is deepening; my rewriting, rethinking, re-inventing, I hope, will reflect this. The whole week seemed worth the effort.

We tend to look at many aspects of life, especially those concerned with learning and growing, as consisting of stages of development. Once we pass through an early stage, we are done with it. This model might work for childhood development, though I’ve also heard of it being criticized. As for writing, the stage model has long been criticized, and yet it is also deeply entrenched in teaching writing in the lower grades.

The stages model suggests that five stages are needed to write an essay: Pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. The assumption with this model is that when we finish “pre-writing” for an essay and move to “drafting,” we are finished with “pre-writing.” And once we finish “drafting,” we move on to “revision” and don’t need to “draft” again. This is to teach these five stages as “non-recursive.”

This is simply too neat to be true or accurate. All of the writers I know don’t write in stages. They don’t see returning to the drawing board as a form of “repentance.” They do return to planning again, they do re-draft whole segments of their work, not because they are terrible writers, but because they are good ones, and in writing the first draft, they realized what their piece was really about.

This seems to be true of most things. When we are involved in a new endeavor, we have only a sketchy understanding of what it is to look like and how we will pull it off. So we plow through until we realize we’re off track. We return to the beginning with a better understanding of what to do.

This is the part of revision that I suppose cuts across into religious thought. Although revision should not carry the moral repugnance of repentance, repentance does resemble the recursive element of revision. Repentance is a turning away from what we’ve done and a turning back to what is perceived as the right path. I suppose for most of us, repentance carries all of the childhood memories of shame, disgrace, and, yes, moral repugnance. But there is also this promise of a better understanding than we had before–yes, it does resemble a new revision.

Aside from the harsh, haunting childhood images, repentance could also be seen as a lot more like revision, as a new opportunity to do things better, the way they should have been done the first time. Certainly, if I’ve done real harm to someone, it’s probably a sign of health that I feel remorse.

For those of us who follow a developmental, stages model for faith (I usually do at an unconscious level) and assume we’re really moving far along and getting deeper and better, we may want to question our model. Christianity without repentance is like writing without revision.

If you’ve looked at as many essays as I have that were written by student writers who don’t revise because they believe revision is only for bad writers, then you’ll understand that it is not a pretty picture.

Most of the time, spiritual progress does resemble writing. And sometimes, as C.S. Lewis onces noted, to go forward I first have to go back.

Posted in Composition, creativity, development, repentance., Revision, stages of writing| 7 Comments


Comment by Sue Tornai on July 15, 2012 at 3:06 pm

I agree with your comments. Getting started is the hardest part for me. After I write down a few ideas or a story plot, I go back and edit and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Making my ideas make sense to someone else, giving my thoughts direction and making a point, giving my characters a turning point and my stories a take-away, is hard but I prefer it to the initial writing down of raw thoughts.

Comment by John on July 15, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Yeah, I think the revision process can teach you a lot about how to live in the world and who you are as a human being. I have expectations that I can do it the first time (or even the fifth time) because I am a narcissist. It takes a lot of humility to revise well.

And I hear you on the composition theory, too. At USC we gave similar stages, but insisted that they were non-sequential.

Comment by socalteacher on July 17, 2012 at 8:53 am

I totally agree that any good writer (or good person if you follow the analogy you established), should be willing to enter the revision/repentance mode. The only challenge I have found with both is that when you are in that stage, it is easy to question whether the work (or the person, as the case may be) is really good at all. Leaving this stage with faith intact is, for me, the hardest part.

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on July 21, 2012 at 11:00 am

I agree, Dave, that the revision cycle is hard to leave. My wife has suggested I sometimes over-revise. She has compared this to clothes left in a laundry cycle too long that come out limp and over-washed. I think she’s right. Sometimes, the first statement is best. But I am convinced that revisions, adding, deepening, are needed.

Comment by Alyson on August 13, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Hi, Tom. I liked your comparison between revision and repentance. I agree that the stages aren’t always clearcut and both are needed again and again. However, as far as repentance goes, the hope is that as we grow as Christians there should be less need for the agonizing aspect of repentance as we grow more in the image of Christ. But of course that’s the hope and the goal, though it’s not as easy for some. As far as revision, I know that when I was a younger and less experienced writer, I was less likely to go back and rewrite because I didn’t realize that my writing wasn’t that good. Now as a much older and a little more seasoned writer, I’m liable to do more rewriting and returning and rewriting again. But I agree with your wife, there comes a time when we need to say enough is enough and throw in the towel.

Comment by Alyson on August 13, 2012 at 4:09 pm

And to prove my point, I’m looking at what I just wrote and am thinking I should have gone back and edited.

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on August 13, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Alyson — Hahaha! Yes, exactly. I do think that repentance is a lifelong struggle, just as revision is. I think both depend on what we are facing. If I am faced with an issue of pride (something harder to admit to than a specific act of sin), I might have a harder time, even as a “old” Christian, admitting to it. And I can think of trying new writing projects I’ve not tried before and struggling with them too, even as an old man, as I am. Thanks for reading and for your posts. You make some good points.

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