where the writers are
Re Vision
After sixteen-year-old Carley Wells claims to have never read a book she has liked, her well-to-do parents decide to commission a novel to be written just for her.
Amazon.com Amazon.com
Powell's Books Powell's Books

Eight lines in, I spotted the homophone error.  Though twelve years later I can't recall the exact misuse (there/their? your/you're? to/too/two?), I do remember thinking that even a million such errors couldn't detract from the quality of the poem.  The high school student who had written it was that talented.  The imagery and emotion of her poetry, the rhythm, the language, were breathtaking.  It was my pleasure--my joy--to read and comment upon her work. I circled the error, knowing she'd fix it in the next rewrite--she was forever willing to revise, always pushing her work to be better--and meant to keep on reading, wanting to stay in the flow of the poem.  Yet something was nagging me.  Staring at the circled word, I could see in my head her last draft.  That line--a beautiful line in no need of changing--had been the same last week.  But the word had been correct then.  Their had been there.  Or to had been too.

I couldn't make sense of how a mistake had made its way into an unchanged line.  Perhaps homophone gnomes?

When I asked her about it ("This probably seems strange that I remember, but I have a memory for words, how they look on paper," I tried to explain), she looked bemused.

 "I typed the wrong word this time."

"But you didn't change the line."

"But I made a mistake when I typed it."

"But..."  Wait, was it possible that she didn't understand how to use "Save As..." to create a new draft of a document?  Or couldn't use Cut and Paste?

No, she assured me when I tried to broach the subject diplomatically.  ("I know the mandatory Computer Class was way back in ninth grade and you might not remember how to...")

"I start from the beginning every time," she told me. "I rewrite."

And I, who had been writing and teaching fiction for years, who had quoted Hemingway's "All writing is rewriting" too many times, and whose pet peeve was students tinkering with their essays and stories instead of revisioning, realized in that moment which of us was the real writer.

Back in college, I had come to regard the computer--with all of its shortcuts--as a savior.  I'd spent high school and freshman year of college pounding out essays on Moll Flanders on a blue typewriter, inserting strips of white correction paper to correct misused homophones.  To rewrite was to have to make peace with hours of additional typing.  Getting a computer meant being able to revise without paying what seemed like a exorbitant price (in terms of time) for, say, adding a single sentence to the middle of a story.  It meant being able to pay attention to tiny details--was the protagonist's dog really a dachsund after all, or might not it be more evocative to change it to a poodle?

But perhaps that's one of the limitations of this type of rewriting, too.  One doesn't see the forest for the, well, poodles.

What my student was doing--rethinking her entire poem from the beginning each time--was part of what made her work feel so whole.  She truly re-saw.  She truly re-vised.

For the record, though I still use the Cut and Paste features for copyediting changes and small additions, I retyped the last several drafts of my novel from scratch.  Each time I tried to think of the story as if coming to it for the first time, consulting a printout of the previous draft, but not feeling wedded to having to keep lines--or paragraphs, or even scenes--just because they worked or because they were already "there."  To one misused homophone, and to that brilliant student, I owe the most important thing I know about writing: that to revise is not to "fix," but rather to approach one's work anew.










8 Comment count
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Great post on Re Vision,

Great post on Re Vision, Tanya.
On a different editing note: I've noticed that I sometimes leave a word out of a sentence, and to make matters worse,I have this magical power to read the word in when I'm rereading. So, it's a difficult error to discover - even after I've reread the paragraph twenty times. Any ideas on how to catch my own tricks of mind? Actually re vision might do it here, too.

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Missing Words

Hi Lynn,

I, unfortunately, have that same "magical power"-- I add the missing word in my head even though it's not on the page. I'm more likely to catch those things if I read the section aloud, though, because I trip over the missing word.

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Wonderful and

Wonderful and thought-provoking, Tanya! I often think about how much the advent of word processing has changed the experience of writing, especially since my early life (including doing a doctoral dissertation) was pre-computer! How did I do ever do that? Would I have come back to writing without a computer? Troubling questions. Thanks for sharing this.

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Thank you, Blair! I really

Thank you, Blair! I really do love all of the flexibility the computer offers, but I also worry about how complacent it can make me.

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Thanks for this

right-on-the-button blog, Tanya!

I used to pound an old blue typewriter, too, an Adler. But what strikes me as truly ironic is how technology which has freed the writer, has tripped up the publisher, ultimately to the disadvantage of both.

How many 'real' writers would there be out there, prepared to re-vision and plough through multiple drafts, if they had to use the old blue typewriter? It would sort the grain from the chaff at a stroke.

The image of poor Snoopy and his overflowing wastebasket is one that strikes home with me.

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Rosy, I'd completely forgotten about Snoopy--that iconic rewriter. (Now he's stuck in my head, which is a good thing.)

While I'm *very* glad that technology has made it possible for voices to be heard that might not otherwise (I'm thinking, for instance, about voice recognition software, and about how features like spellcheck can be a godsend to people with certain learning differences), I do think that not having to physically plough through multiple drafts ends up hurting some writers. Writing is a marathon--it requires a lot of time, repetition, and training. Computers perhaps shortcut us on all the above.

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My favorite Snoopy Writer strip

was when Lucy asks Snoopy "Are you ever going to write a kiss and tell book?" He kisses her on the nose, then runs around thinking: "I'm going to tell! I'm going to tell!"

Jennifer Gibbons, Red Room

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one of my favourite Snoopy strips is when, after serial 'Dear Contributor' rejections, he writes back:

"Dear Editor, what is it with you...?"

Been there! Got that tee-shirt!