I commanded my first students to revise, as I had been commanded by my own mentors. Had I ever revised–not just proofread and fiddled, but actually revised–anything in my life before I started teaching? No. When I was a student, my first drafts were clean enough and clever enough, I could get away with handing them in for all my classes. Some of my teachers called me on it, but nobody insisted I do anything differently. When I took the helm of a writing class for the first time, at the absurd age of 24, I could tell my students all the steps of a beginner’s revision process. I knew the platitudes, and for me, that’s all they were. I could not have followed those steps to save my life. My first drafts, while in progress, were plenty messy, but once I finished them, the prose style was smooth as glass. I feared what might happen if I broke it.
To my astonishment, my first crop of freshman composition students followed my directions. Why on earth did they do that? I had no idea what I was doing at the helm of that classroom in 1994. I’ll be grateful to them always, because they did one thing none of my teachers had theretofore accomplished: they made revision look desirable, enviable, even occasionally joyful. They didn’t just shame me into learning how to revise, though I will say that my horror at my hypocrisy was one force that drove me to change my ways. My students were, at semester’s end, happy with freshman composition papers, of all things, because they had accomplished major transformations on their projects. Yes, their sentences got smoother, but more to the point, their ideas grew.
I could make my ideas grow when I wrote poetry. I was a formalist, and classical forms forced me to search constantly for new ways to see whatever thought started a poem. You know that old Robert Frost quote about how writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down? Prose was even more so for me.
Your first thought is not likely to be your best thought, I told the students. When you get to the end of your first draft, look for your coolest idea. Dump anything that’s not necessary to it or nearly as col as it is, and then start over around the core of coolness. And it worked! At the end of a semester of watching twenty students follow the standard advice in twenty non-standard ways, I followed the step-by-step instructions myself.
To this day, I don’t try to figure out what the core of a new short story or novella is until I’m nearly done with the first draft. Once I’ve written the bones, I can ask not only what my coolest idea is, but what my coolest moments, characters, images, and phrases are. Things that fit together stay. Things that don’t fit or are insufficiently cool go into a folder titled “Half-Abandoned Bits.” Maybe later they’ll grow into functioning story-parts. For now, they’re out of the way.
By the year I got to teach Creative Writing for the first time, I could actually speak from experience about revising prose, but I hadn’t ever revised a work of fiction, not deeply. I learned that from my students too, long before I returned to writing fiction myself. They learned pretty easily to jettison characters who weren’t working out for them–something I still struggle to do.