The Only Way Out Is Through: Revision as Play

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This blog was originally posted on January 18, 2013.

Recently, I did a webinar for Bedford/St. Martin’s (which you can find here). During my lecture (which I pretended was a kind of little TED talk—I did so many rehearsals!!), I talked about the top three concerns students have when it comes to revision:

1. It takes a ton of TIME

The most frustrating aspect of revision is the time it demands.  –Morgan

2. Losing my voice: AUTHENTICITY

I write from inspiration deep down, and pre-Junior year I believed that deviating from that inspiration was untrue to myself as a writer. Now I know: the stuff that spits out onto the page at 1 AM isn’t necessarily what should be published in a book.  –Becca


The most frustrating aspect of revision is having to do it and making stupid mistakes, not getting everything right the first time…. –Victoria

I started off my talk by naming and addressing these common student concerns.  The fear that we will spend forever revising and not really get anywhere, or, worse, revising but not knowing if we have improved (or destroyed) our vision.  The fear that trying to please readers and the teacher will ruin our original voice. And, the most important aspect of revision is right there inside of Victoria’s fear: you have to be okay with feeling dumb in order to be an artist.  You have to befriend mistakes!  You have to tend and befriend a very vulnerable part of your self.  It’s hard work!

I think we—writing teachers—also have similar concerns as writers! We worry so much about our failures and the time it takes to be a serious, committed writer.  As we progress in our professions, it gets harder and harder to let ourselves “feel dumb” and start again.

However, I’m very much wanting to keep my pedagogy crisply in line with what I actually do as a writer in my own studio.  So, I’ve been looking closely at how I talk about revision to my students.

In my opinion:

  • “Revision” is a problematic concept.
  • Revision is a vague and useless umbrella term: We say revision when we mean composing, editing, experimenting, planning, re-seeing.
  • Misleading concept: revision is actually writing; it’s not separate from writing.
  • Writing and revising are the same act of mind.

I have come up with my own New Goals for Teaching Revision. I want to create revision instruction that helps students:

  • Focus more deeply.
  • Spend more time on their writing because it becomes more likeplay (not necessarily light and fun but engaging—just hard enough).
  • See results: strategies produce better work.

If you like, check out my webinar on this topic and tell me what you think. I would love to hear about your experiences as a writer or as a teacher when it comes to revision.

About the Author
Heather Sellers (PhD, Florida State University) is professor of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate creative writing in children's literature, poetry, and non-fiction. She won the student-chosen professor of the year award at Hope College, where she gave the commencement address. Her textbook for the multi-genre course is The Practice of Creative Writing, which will appear next year in its third edition. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Fiction, she's published two books on creating an inspiring and happy writing life, Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter, as well as a children's book, two books of poetry and three chapbooks, along with Georgia Under Water, a collection of short stories. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The London Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, O,the Oprah Magazine, and The Sun, as well as Prairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly Review. She's currently at work on a new manuscript of poems and a novel for younger readers, set in Florida, her home state. She’s an avid cyclist and kayaker.