The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: Rick Moody's Guide to Revision

Below is an excerpt of "A Guide to Revision" by Rick Moody. Download the full document by clicking here.

Revision is the most important part of what we do as writers. It's also the least studied stage in the process. There are stylemanuals in abundance, true. These style manuals often feature a wealth of practical recommendations for writers. But these recommendations are, in their silence on the specifics of revision, essentially aimed at the first draft. Less often do these style manuals apply themselves to the ongoing process of writing, the painstaking improvement that is revision. At the other extreme, writing workshops, which often do make suggestions for revision, have an easier time suggesting major surgery than they do suggesting the kinds of fine tuning that make the difference in the long, slow deliberation of completion.

As a way of rethinking the kind of instruction I have recently offered my own students, it has occurred to me that I might attempt to make scientific - however disagreeable that word might sound - the art of revision. In this way, I imagine that I help to make this essential part of composition less fearsome, less unknown. A number of specific suggestions occur below, therefore, with a rationale for each. The diagnosis I'm offering here is old-fashioned: that haste and a lack of interest in line-by-line work are the literary diseases of the age. What follows are some things you can do to avoid falling ill.

Of course, I am by no means perfect at these things myself. But over the years I have become more teachable. (I have even revised these lines according to the rules contained in these pages and I am not sure the piece is done yet!) This, therefore, is advice I take myself, at least when I am working at my best. I offer it to all interested parties.

1. Omit Needless Words

This suggestion is from a style manual, one of the best, and it is therefore a good place to begin. The injunction comes from Strunk and White, of course, as readers of that primer will recall. E. B. White, an admirable stylist, has the line-by-line gracefulness of a great rewriter, and in thi s particular case the perfection is as much in the form of the recommendation as it is in the sense. Which is to say: it's obvious that all the needless words have been removed from the phrase "Omit needless words." (One cannot greet with like enthusiasm the authors' suggestion, elsewhere, to "Prefer the mainstream to the offbeat.") What could be more elegantly restrained than this nugget of widsom? The command, as shown here, is such an adroit verb form, don't you think? Use commands often! And while I will recommend below that you rethink modifiers when you revise, the modifier here ("needless") is so muscular, especially before the noun "words," that it is hard to quarrel with it. Why omit needless words? A parable, if I may. When I was first working in book publishing, in 1986, I worked for an editor who occasionally offered an exercise along the lines of the Strunk and White suggestion, in the course of training young editors. My boss's editorial exercise involved a deep inquiry into the phrase "Buy fresh fish here." This being a sign one might, for the sake of argument, see at a local fish market. About this phrase, "Buy fresh fish here," my boss observed that a) no fish market would advertise old or unfresh fish, making "fresh" redundant; and b) if you were standing at the fish market itself it was obvious that you were already "here," making that word unnecessary; c) what else would you do at the market but "buy" the fish, eliminating the need for that portion of the sign; leaving d) just "Fish" in the sign, as far as truly essential words went. Jane, my boss, suggested that contemporary prose be edited along these lines. Ruthlessly.

Download the rest of Rick Moody's essay here.