The Power of Revision by Giselle
Joseph Harris, “Revision as a Critical Practice” focuses on writing as a practice, with revision being the key (578). Here critical reading and writing are one. He looks for “how ideas get shaped in and refracted by language” (582). He seeks to help students go beyond plot summaries to deeper levels of analysis. He suggests that the way to help students get to this level is through teacher comments and peer review.
This makes me think of a poetry class that I am taking during this study sabbatical year. In this class, we read and write poetry in tandem. In this class, either in small groups or in whole class seminar style, we critique one another’s poetry, examining content, style, structure, syntax, punctuation, etc. I notice that when receiving feedback from my classmates and professor, I have a better analytic comprehension of what I have communicated through the poetry and what remains obscure. (A little mystery in poetry can be desirable, but ambiguity is a mistake). In other words, I can never have the objectivity to know what is unclear. My classmates and teacher explain what the poem achieves and suggest ways to bridge the gaps. When I articulate the process, they might know what key words need to be added or subtracted. The entire assignment is the original draft, the revised poem, and a letter to the professor discussing the changes made to the revision and a rationale behind the revision choices.
For example, I wrote a particular poem about my experiences swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool or, in reality, doing the backstroke in a toxic environment. My classmates did not understand the transition from the swimming pool in the first stanza to the beach in the second stanza. Only when I explained that I had seen a small shaving of pink soap on the tiled floor that looked like a seashell did they understand my intended meaning. One of my classmates specifically said that this detail needed to be included in the poem in order to make clear the change in setting. Without this revision, my poem was confusing, not surreal. Ultimately, in my rationale to my professor, I explained this revision in my poem. Harris refers to this as the role of serendipity [of student comments]. He explains this process as going “from good luck to a conscious practice, and, in doing so, taken more control of . . . . [the] writing” (589).
Another incident, that occurred thirty years ago, comes to mind from a similar poetry workshop class. I had a most beloved teacher who advised me to scrap a metaphor poem that wasn’t working. I felt differently, and, tenaciously, held onto the poem knowing that there was something there that I hadn’t gotten to just yet. Eventually, I understood that the symbol of the poem was about the complexity of the intimacy between sisters. I just needed some space to figure it out. As a result, I dramatically revised the poem to a new work. This is similar to what a student, Charles, experienced. He realized that revision, or, having a new conception of a work, requires hard work. He says, “. . . instead of just improving on the same paper, I wrote one with a completely different point” (589). Then there is the story of Creg who “faced with turning in a revised draft of a major class assignment, decides that he needs to start over, virtually from scratch, in order to get it right” (586). In other words, it is optimal if students realize that sometimes their revisions require starting anew, in order to create a completely different work.