Yesterday I was commiserating with a professor about how many people write their essays the day before (as opposed to me, who took six weeks to write my college application essays), and she said something that blew my mind: “So many people don’t understand that revision is to re-see the work. You have to forget what your purpose was and reread it to see what you are actually saying.”
This, of course, is rather obvious. The second definition of “revise” in the OED is “to see or look at again.” For the Brits, who use “revise” as “to study,” it is also a close synonym with “to review,” which is of course to re-view. But as the professor went on to say, most of us think of revising as changing a word here or a comma there. Many people consider “revising” their essays to be rereading it once or twice to make sure everything makes grammatical sense.
As an editor, I know that is not what revising is about. And any writing blog will recommend you step away from your piece for a few days, weeks, or months before revising it. But never before have I considered revising as an opportunity to forget. As my professor said, it is an opportunity to return your work as a new reader. Indeed, if you really leave it for a few months, you will be a different person when you pull that piece out again.
Just the other day I opened a project I wrote last summer and discovered that rereading my character was a completely different experience than writing her. Part of it was because I’ve had new experiences, met new people, learned new things so that I see the world just a little differently than before. But I’m also approaching this piece from a different role now. When I’m writing, I feel like my characters’ Siamese twin: our minds are so connected it almost feels physical, and the only difference is I’m walking around in the physical world and they’re in the imaginary. But now that I have given this project space, the character has become her own person, and I can’t remember exactly what I meant by some of the details I included.
To a writer, that might sound scary. After all, if even I don’t remember what I meant, how is anyone else supposed to know? But this is actually a tremendous gift. The people who are going to be reading my writing (hopefully) will not just be me. They will not have a creepy mind fusion with my characters. They will be strangers who come at it with a completely different experience than mine. So the space from my writing gives me the opportunity to pretend I’m a new reader of that awesome writer Katie Flanagan. I can reread it to see what works and, more importantly, what is a colossal failure.
Revising, then, really is forgetting. It is re-seeing your work for what it really is, not what you want it to be. It is seeing yourself in the mirror after putting your makeup on without one (I don’t recommend doing this, but sometimes a girl’s in a hurry). It is the opportunity to be the reader, not the writer. And after all, what are we at heart if not readers?