Revision: Be Guided by Your Own Discontent

Revision can be painful. This is where we meet what’s wrong with our writing head on.  No one wants to face it. No one. But I won’t be the first one to tell you that this is where the true writing takes place.

What I’d like to do is encourage you not to think about revision in terms of first drafts or second drafts or even tenth drafts. Instead, think about how the process of revision is folded into the whole process of creation. (Note: There is nothing wrong with doing drafts, to some degree no matter what our process, we all do them even if we can’t number them. But right now we are thinking outside the “drafting box.”)

Here I’m enlisting the help of one of the most masterful short story writers living today, George Saunders. (His stories and articles frequently appear in the New Yorker and I urge you to check them out. Just follow the previous link.) Recently, I came upon his short video on his writing process called On Story, where he details how his process unfolds. It is worth watching for anyone who is interested in understanding how to write better–whether you are writing fiction as he does, personal essays, poetry, creative nonfiction, or just have to write a bunch of stuff for work or school and want learn to love the process.


He first describes how he might begin with a single sentence; something simple like, Frank is an asshole.  He looks at it and isn’t happy. He crosses out the word “asshole” and then replaces it with multiple sentences that express the same thing, but with more nuance, more detail. He becomes curious about Frank. Maybe Frank isn’t as much of an asshole as he thought. He writes more. He crosses things out. He writes some more.

What is driving this change, this progress?  Saunders identifies it as discontent with what’s there. He says:

It’s your own discontent with it that in some slow mysterious way urges it [your writing] to higher ground

This process of letting your discontent drive you is critical.  It has to happen or else you aren’t writing.  It can happen sentence by sentence as Saunders describes or it can happen draft by draft. But unfortunately it’s a process we resist. Really, wh wants to sow discontent with something that you have just poured your heart into? When you have completed a draft or a paragraph or even a hard-won sentence you want to sit back and enjoy it. You want to be the proud mother who can overlook your child’s flaws, not the one whose son or daughter isn’t playing well with the other children.

But good parenting, like good writing, requires that you pay close attention, observe, take it all in, be curious about your work and your own response to your work. Where do you feel confused. irritated, slightly uneasy? Only after you do this can you know what your next step is. For Saunders it’s all about the sentences, he says:

When you pay attention to those sentences your better nature rises

And then you will know you need to try something else. This iterative process of shaping, looking, reforming, adding on, looking again, taking off is what writing is.  This is how stories are made, essays are written.  In this sense, revision isn’t just a step in the writing process; it is nothing less an act of creation. Saunders says:

 You can see revision as a form of active love.

But what if someone else, say a teacher or boss, is forcing you to write something? In this case, it might be hard to give it love. You might feel more like you are being forced to babysit the kid next door than lovingly getting to know and guide the character of your own child. But remember: what you write is always, always yours and no one else’s. The more you love it enough to keep finding and feeling the discontent, the better it will be.