If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished? — Rumi
I don’t often use the cocoon metaphor, probably because my only phobia is Mottephobia (which provides endless hilarity for my friends). More than once I’ve been swarmed by hungry butterflies on a hot summer’s day, or by huge hairy moths that crawled raveningly over my face, into my hair, and down my neckline as I fled screaming wildly across parking lots on humid summer nights. Disgusting? Right. But what does that have to do with revision?
Revision is more than just polishing your writing to meet pre-defined standards—it is a crucible. This liminal refuge between mind and page is primed for transformation; the superfluous, what is unsound structurally or stylistically is seared away, so that a writer is cocooned in recomposing. Here, we can go beyond just re-building. Accepting revision into our process can be like entering a retreat, an internal white space where we can view our writing objectively, truthfully, without being hard on ourselves. And if a writer can know, or feel, wholly themselves when revising, chances are the end result will surpass the initial concept. In the beginning, revising is more about achieving a final draft that conforms to what is often a single, inflexible idea with a preconceived form, style and voice. This is normal. By reading widely of what interests us, “stealing” from other writers, and choosing to push beyond the surface of a first draft, we evolve. Our depth, as writers, increases; we need reflection and precision to create engagement and resonance in our work.
Writers often share their processes with me, and I have observed that revision becomes an act of transformation when the feedback they’ve received is filtered through their own inner-knowing. Focused reflection and refining of their ideas quickly become less tiresome. Why? Because each dedicated revision feels like a journey. They surprise themselves with how capably they express those crucial things within them that must find a voice. Before, they were pleased that they had completed a piece. Now, they feel a deep sense of satisfaction at the transformation that occurs on the page and off. They widely acknowledge that what they really feel and really want to accomplish only appears when revising.
The quantity of drafts also changes with time. Whether prose or poetry, I used to write ten drafts before I achieved something close to being finalized. And it wasn’t even that good. Now, it’s two or three. Sometimes those revisions feel strange, but I have learned to trust my instincts and to trust my audience. If you’ve had formal training in an academic setting, a Cerberus of critics, current canon trends and publishing standards often howl in your mind as you compose.
However, mixed audiences of literary lovers, critics and friends are a good barometer. Hearing from an individual less knowledgeable of literary conventions is just as valuable as receiving feedback from a critic. A critic will be listening/reading closely, and an individual will be listening/reading more generally. Your friends will be honest. A general listener, or reader, won’t see all the fancy things you’re doing. They want to engage with the writing. I think success comes in the form of consensus, perhaps when a critic and a general reader both say the same thing about your writing. You know, then, that you are being read the way you intended.
To get there, and we all eventually get to where we want to be, usually involves stacks and stacks of drafts.
The process of many drafts, of revising and re-creating, is easier to come to when thought of like eclosion. If revising involves donning armour and charging off to shred the “I-can’t-believe-I-wrote-that-dragon” or to stab at the “I’m-a-horrible-hack-I’m-never-going-to-get-this-troll” it will always feel like a struggle.
You could say an occupational hazard of writers (there are a few) is transformation-angst. Nebulous fear, often paired with (a little or a lot of) resistance, leads to demonic possession, which manifests as the “my-first-draft-is-perfect!-demon”, resident of the eighth level of writers’ hell, the unholy resting place of plagiarists, propagandists, and self-described genius. Being overly defensive about a draft often comes from bad experiences, when writing shared in good faith is mocked or receives harsh criticism. And the harshest, most dismissive feedback arises from jealously or critiquing surface writing.
Surface writing and stream of consciousness are often first draft material. I like to think of this as “vomiting down the page”. I’m lucky if I have one eloquent line or three fully articulated thoughts. More often it’s a loose collection of ideas and images aligning with my original concept. Mostly I repeat what I did when the childhood cat perched on the TV, watching upside down, as my brother played Sonic the Hedgehog: I clean up puke. Although maybe a little less vocally. The second draft is for researching and tidying my page, balancing between what’s crucial to the piece and what I love. Even if it doesn’t fit, what I love lingers until I am ready to let it go. My third draft is for refining, probing for the best language and form, recomposing in my little cocoon until it ecloses from me. And just in case this comes across as orderly, know that my entire process is messy but fruitful like mud-puddling.
Each writer grows in their own style and their writing evolves at its own pace. Yet, attitude, even for writers, is everything, which is why mud-puddling has its purpose in sustaining beautiful creatures. So, you can be the mud, or you can be the butterfly looking for sustenance. It might be more agonizing to finish a first draft than to revise it.
Revision is not about pleasing someone else. Perhaps the key thing to grasp is that, at its core, revision is not about taking away from your writing but recreating it. You are bringing more of what is truly you to the page—your original voice, your style and your way of seeing and being in the world. Ask any life coach or psychologist worth their salt, true transformation happens only when we are dedicated to evolving for ourselves. No one else. And it happens in writing when you are truly writing, and revising, you.
KAYLA GEITZLER, MA, is from Moncton, within Siknikt of the Mi’kma’ki. “A Rad Woman of Canadian Poetry” & Attic Owl Reading Series host, she was Moncton’s first Anglophone Poet Laureate. Her first poetry collection was a finalist for two awards. Kayla is co-editor of the multilingual anthology Cadence Voix Feminines Female Voices. She was a technical editor on pipeline projects & designed ATC courseware. As an editor, writing consultant & instructor, Kayla's affordable expertise helps writers & organizations achieve success.