A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Re-Working (a Metaphor)

We're talking about the difference between revising and editing in my "grammar for language arts teachers" class today, and that has got me thinking about writing teachers' penchant for literalizing the term revision as re-vision, re-seeing.

I've accepted and even used that literalized sense myself, but there's always been something about it that didn't feel quite right. As I was preparing for class today, though, what had been a vague, gut-level dissonance emerged into the light of consciousness: To me, re-seeing implies wholesale change--a total do-over. Of course, it is possible to re-see as a way to solve a problem with an existing argument and, so, to not completely scrap what's already there. But the term definitely tends toward the global: To truly revise, you have to re-see your writing, to understand it in a wholly new sense.

But sometimes revision doesn't require re-seeing. Sometimes it just takes a lot of brain-wrenching labor to get your writing where you've always wanted it to go in the first place. When that's the case, one is less re-seeing one's writing than re-working it.

Why bother with the distinction? For one, I think re-working gets closer than re-seeing to the heart of why so many of our students seem not to be able, or not to want, to engage in deep, meaningful revision of their writing. While it's true that students who fail to engage in deep revision often do so because they can't "see" what needs to happen in their writing, the nature of that blindness stems not from lack of knowledge but from lack of having powered through three, five, ten hours of cross-eyed attempts to figure out what, exactly, it is that they're not seeing. Or, more precisely, the lack of knowledge itself is a lack of work, and vice versa.

For their writing to be good, most people have to be willing to put in what amounts to more work on the revision than they did on the first (or second, or seventh) draft. "Re-working" may not have the benefit of cleverness that the vision/seeing wordplay did at one time, but it more than makes up for lack of wit in its simple, if somewhat brutish, precision.

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