Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 27, 2014

Revising with Love and Doubt

While revising a collection of verse based in history, I’m leaning on the voices of smart friends. Two of my readers are new-ish friends, but my other readers are the man to whom I’ve been married for thirty plus years and three people in my writing group who’ve been meeting for about twenty-five years. That’s a lot of trust. Sometimes I can imagine their reactions before I give them pages, beating them to the punch by taking out what I know will get marked. (It’s like doing yoga in my room, while imagining the voice of my teacher in the studio telling us to get our back ends a little higher or lower, to consider downward-facing dog as a practice in itself.) As I revise, I anticipate some of what may seem meandering to Bruce, too convoluted for Lisa or too prosy for Dina. But of course they are better at being themselves than I can imagine them to be, and they catch stuff I miss. When there’s unanimity about something, I don’t argue, but some things go by them and are being caught by my husband who’s the final reader. I was into this image involving eyes as hooks, until I got back a note from Peter: That is a truly disturbing image. You will not find hook-eyes in my book. His eyebrows also shot up beyond raised at my “saved stones in a soaked satchel.” Okay, I get it, I told him. Just write TMA for “too much alliteration.”  I’m kind of addicted.

Revising is complicated, but absolutely integral to the process. In the comments of my last blog, a few people mentioned students who groan when it’s time to revise. I understand. You think you’ve finished something, then someone tells you that you haven’t. Even if we knew that was coming, there’s a feeling like being kicked we might have to acknowledge with a private scream or muttering. It’s hard to take out the knife-like pen to cut out places that took work, then start new sentences. But once the knife has done its work, I usually see new sparkle or opportunities. Then I’m in full revision mode, not tending to a taskmaster’s demands, but being in a sort of conversation with my older and newer selves, the creative idler and the fastidious setter-of-bars. Last Friday in the comments on blog, Holly Mueller beautifully phrased this as the lending nature of the process: we give our work to others, then take it back, perhaps slightly changed. Also in the comments – I’m so thankful for these conversations! — Donna Smith referred to the delicate art of critique, mentioning the fine line between hurting and helping, and how some will hold back on the helping for fear of hurting. I think we’ve all been there. No matter how carefully phrased, when our work is criticized we feel a bubble burst, and the pain sticks around longer than marks left by water and soap.

When I visit schools, teachers may urge me to discuss my revision process, and I will mention the weeks and months of crossing out words, destroying chapters. But I sometimes feel uneasy. I love that great teachers look to writers to show students ways into the process, but I hardly revised until I was in my twenties, and wonder if there’s a connection between revising and age. While we want students to learn from “real writers,” we rarely give them the sort of time writers need to get a distance from our work, or even to mull and make more mistakes. Older people get perspective in exchange for other losses, and that is handy when revising.

I was a kid who liked to write, back in a days when it was at the far end of the English class curriculum, when more time was spent learning to diagram sentences and spell. On my own, I sometimes wrote the first acts of short plays, rhymed poems, or the start of a story, and learned that revising can sometime mean letting go, moving on to the next project. I also learned the solitary nature of the process, and kept myself protected until I felt ready to show anyone what I was dreaming up. Now I see that some students may learn that starting out again into revision is tough, but the reward may be getting to have the happy finishing-feeling when they’ve worked their way through that last – perhaps – round. But some students just might never get revision. I hope we all stay mindful of the needs of the shy, thoughtful, maybe a bit too sensitive children we hope will grow up and run the world. Some children are wary for good reasons. Some need to stay firmly in the age of dreaming, creating, bubble making not bursting. Some will write as if making offerings, and sometimes we grownups just need to say, “Thank you.” No matter how gentle our voice in suggesting changes, it may be the wrong thing to say.

This is me talking about me as a teacher: I’ve regretted some of my words. And I speak about these children with some authority because the shy girl I was remains in sixty-year-old-me as I write, and I need her as much as I need the experienced reviser, and the professional who can write back to an editor who asked her to lop off fifty pages with a quiet, “Yes, thank you, I can do that.” Keeping the moaning to myself, and that faithful writing group,who, stick with me for more than critique, but are ready with the as necessary reminder that there’s more work to be done that only I can do.


It truly takes time to learn that fields that look both perfect and never mown may have known scythes or machines, or to see beauty in a field of pale wildflowers as much as artfully arranged or bright blossoms. And time may give us a belief that we can fix what can be fixed and move on from what can’t. We learn that love isn’t always pure-valentine pink, and adjust ourselves to love that holds what we never thought it could. Revising calls for both gentleness and ruthlessness, which is a lot to ask. But grownups now, we can do this and it will be worthwhile. And we’ll arrive at point where we can say: for better or for worse, this is mine.

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit: Buffy’s Blog.

And for one more note about revision, check out the amazing Laura Shovan for the heroic way she kills her darlings here:

Then go congratulate her for her recent two book deal at The Best News Ever!



  1. You’ve outdone yourself, Jeannine! The field. Your sensitivity to young students – the connection between revising and age. Thank you!!

  2. Such a rich post, Jeannine. Especially appreciated your thoughts about working with students, and the different perspective of an older, more experienced writer. And yes, the gentleness and the ruthlessness. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for the kudos, Jeannine. I loved this post. For me, the first draft is much, much harder than the revision process. Your words here and your approach to revision are all about gentleness (despite the scythe). We should be gentle to ourselves, even as we prod and poke at writing drafts. “And time may give us a belief that we can fix what can be fixed and move on from what can’t. “

    • That first draft being the hardest is true for many experienced writers. Tough as revision is, somehow we can see through to how things should glow once we tend to all the weediness in our way. Of course it takes strong arms to get through. Or, say, six years. Yay for you, Laura!

  4. This stopped me in my tracks, Jeannine:
    “..but I hardly revised until I was in my twenties, and wonder if there’s a connection between revising and age. While we want students to learn from “real writers,” we rarely give them the sort of time writers need to get a distance from our work, or even to mull and make more mistakes. ”
    We DO move students along in their writing at quite a clip (we have a school year, and many units to cover, after all) and they rarely have the time to distance themselves from the writing piece – it’s always, let’s revise by week’s end, right?!
    You have me thinking deeply,yet again, about my teaching practices.

    • Tara, writing this I had in mind wonderful teachers like you who think so long and hard and care so much for students, and that last thing I’d want is to ever make you feel I don’t truly appreciate all of that, depend on it for the world. But it’s like you to say it makes you think, and I’ll go with that. I so believe in revision, and so want students to learn it, but embracing the process is harder than going through the steps. Like many, I find the first steps of revision are hard going; then there’s the grace. And if students are just going to feel the tough part, because of the reality of the lack of time in the school calendar, it’s going to be hard for them to know the light at the end. I hope some bright educators beside you are figuring out ways to make this happen! Thank you for your always thoughtful ways. And — enjoy summer!

  5. I love this entry. I, too, feel blessed to be of a certain age at this point in my writing life, and as I wondered why, you answered it in this: “Older people get perspective in exchange for other losses, and that is handy when revising.” Oh, how true, and how bittersweet. An excellent quote for the inspiration cork board, and for draft three of this manuscript.

    This week I was discussing revision with a fellow MFA-er, noting how focused we are on getting the draft done and how little time we have for moving through revision as a process in MFA world (at least as novelists, though I might suspect the same for those who write shorter pieces). Semester-long mentorships privilege drafting over revising. That’s acceptable, I think, because the product is really the degree, not a publishable novel in 14 weeks. And now I’ve the degree, the draft, and the need for revision. Just ahead there, we agreed, is the real work that we must tackle.

    In my teens and twenties, I did minor revisions of my poems before I copied them into my blank books, but I remember the revisions being quite superficial. In my thirties, I blindly drafted between nursing babes and working – no attempts at revisions at all. Those novels remain in a digital drawer somewhere, never to be seen again. Now that I’ve hit forty, I am happy to have embraced revision as the work of the next decade. I am ready for it now. And I am so happy to have you as encouragement along the way. Thanks for such a beautiful post…

    • Heather, I miss your 17 page long journal entries, so thank you for this! And you’re so right — two years is two years, even if we call those years getting an MFA. It’s great to generate all that material, but coming back to it knowing all you’ve learned brings a whole other level of work, growth, and accomplishment — and I am so proud of yours!

  6. I’m off on a road trip, taking your words with me to consider, especially in my teaching life. Thank you, Jeannine, for your thoughtful words.

    • Happy traveling, Linda. You are one of those teachers I wish could be duplicated, at least one in every school. Thank you!

  7. Love this post. Glad you didn’t go with “stowed stones in a soaked satchel” (see? it can always be worse!)

    This feels like a gift to me today, and I thank you for it.


    • Thanks, Kelly — glad something struck you. And “it could be worse” is a phrase I pull out almost daily. And it is true every time.

  8. Such a thoughtful post! Like Tara, I was most struck by thinking about how kids have to navigate their creative work in a school day/week/year, and how they don’t have the same perspective we older writers do because they just haven’t had that many trips around the sun. I always try to encourage young writers to let something sit/stew/cure… but it would help to remind them that sometimes that can take months or even years, which seems like forever to them – but they’ll learn soon enough! Thanks for sharing.

    • So interesting how time changes … and, my poet friend, I love how you describe the years as trips around the sun.

  9. “Some will write as if making offerings…” This line brought me back to when I was teaching ESL, and the beautiful essay one student wrote. After the revision process, she didn’t seem to love writing as much.

    • We all go through slumps, but the advantage of age is it’s easier to see that as something to go through – not the end — or at least we learn how much of this sort of pain we can take, and control it better. I hope your student found her love again. When we as caring teachers see advice to making something better as the best we can offer, students may only hear a noisy negative rattle. Thank you for reading and writing here, Monica!

  10. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Jeanine. I too anticipate reactions as I’m writing and revising–and then am surprised at what I didn’t notice on my own when my crit group gives input. What a brilliant observation you’ve made about not revising until you were in your twenties. I’m guessing that’s true for most of us. I wonder if what you’re driving at is similar to something I heard recently about “no tragedies before age 12.” Rather than teaching young kids about tough problems that adults have difficult grappling with like climate change, it’s better to expose kids to the wonder of nature, so that when they are adults they’ll have a love of the natural world and want to protect it. In the same way, maybe it’s best to instill a love for creative endeavors in young kids and save the work and perspective of revision for later?

    • Buffy, yes, it can be embarrassing what we missed, but it’s best just to move on and thank our excellent readers! We’ve all been in that boat.

      I agree with that notion of giving children chances to love nature before showing them examples of doom, and am moved by your analogy. It’s so wonderful that teachers teach writing beyond the 5 paragraph essay I was raised on, and wonderful they look to writers for inspiration, but it can be a little too easy to say — you shouldn’t be hurt by criticism, we’re trying to help –and miss a wounded face. It’s one thing to spark a graduate student’s ire or hurt, but… maybe fourth graders should just be told: Great! What’s next?

      Thank you for your thoughts!

  11. Love that last paragraph — so wise and lovely!

    • Thank you, Mary Lee. Happy beginning of summer!

  12. Gentleness and ruthlessness… YES! I think so often as a writer I just need someone to tell me yes, you’re getting there, keep going. Particularly young writers really don’t need a lot of criticism… just encouragement. I try to remember this when I work with students — and like you, I have some regrets. There have been times when I’ve forgotten what tenderness this brave thing we’re doing — writing and sharing– deserves. xo

    • Sending brave, tender you my best nods to keep going. I agree, those are worth a lot. And I have so much faith in you.

  13. You sure do know how to “find the essence” in your blog posts. I love the way your mind works. As a child, I think revision is frustrating… an annoyance. We’re primed and ready to move on. As an adult, I think we need to learn to trust revision before we can see it as hopeful and productive rather than scary and destructive.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Michelle. I’m not sure we all together get over the sting of revision, but at least we can see it in its transcient place, which is quite something. Have a great July!

  14. Hi there Jeannine. I love reading about your thoughtful reflections. Revising is kind of like a way of being for me as an academic – where our journal article submissions would no doubt return to us red and bleeding and begging to be restructured and yes… revised. Same with the comments I give to my own thesis supervisees as I ask them to revise their work. It’s always a humbling experience – but very enriching too. 🙂

    • Yes, for professionals, there’s not much point in writing if you’re not going to do it well, and we get the perspective soon enough that we’re going to learn from this one paper, then the next, and from what our work is on its way to being. Humbled is a better word than cringing, so thank you for that!

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