The handiest revision tool I know is an empty notebook. Even the presence of that notebook, silent and full of potential in my desk drawer, influences my writing. Why? Because those empty pages, which I’m saving for the purpose of “seeing my subject anew,” exert the same creative potential as the empty pages of my initial draft. I have this much space (one hundred college ruled pages) to explore my project, adding nuance and insight and depth. And all that space is removed from the rough draft, which usually resides in a computer file—that is, it’s a space apart from my actual composition where I can be brutally honest and unbelievably sloppy. The revision notebook is my happy companion.
What goes in it? First, I’ve taken a lesson from Virginia Woolf’s diaries and use it to vent about the writing process. If I’m stuck, I write about being stuck. If I’m despairing, I make note of it. Over time, I’ve learned to recognize patterns in the emotional highs and lows of writing and find comfort in their familiarity. For example, I often feel stymied between drafts, as though I’ll never see my way clear to a new vision for the work. This awareness, and the fact that the stymied period always passes, has over time eased my sense of panic. A save space to hash out my process acts as a release valve and makes me more self-aware as a writer.
Second, a notebook allows us to use our natural voice without having to be conscious of our readers. In my experience, my clearest, freshest voice emerges when I write only for myself. When I periodically turn to my notebook to journal about my process or subject matter, I ground myself back in that voice. Sometimes phrases, sentences, or whole paragraphs emerge that I then transfer to my draft. More often I simply remember my voice, I shed my pretenses, and return to my writing with greater integrity.
Third, old fashioned pen and paper allow writers to play with their manuscripts in ways a computer can’t. I use my notebook to draw mind maps, bubbles of ideas that link and digress and sprawl. I make timelines to help me sort out chronology. I sketch visual representations of my work’s structure so I can see its entire shape. I color-code elements of the story—characters, themes, places—to find gaps and to create balance. In other words, the revision notebook provides me with an entirely new method to work with my prose.
Likewise, different material emerges when we use various tools for writing. My prose is faster, sloppier, and bolder when I compose on the computer. When I write by hand, I pay more attention to individual words; I pause more often to think; I’m more apt to be honest, probably because I’ve journaled by hand for decades. Having two modalities increases my chances of getting at the heart of my project.
Lest you consider me a Ludite, for every project I also keep a computer file dedicated to revision. There I harbor the “darlings” I’m unwilling to kill—that is, when I cut passages from my draft, they move to the purgatory of my revision journal where they usually languish. But I am comforted that they still exist, and I always read through them before moving on to another draft to determine whether my judgment was good. This file allows me to move quickly from draft to journal when I’ve had an inspiration mid-stream but don’t want to interrupt myself. I write a lot of lists in this journal.
The journal can act as a retreat place—a haven where we can see our work with fresh perspective and from which we can return to composing with renewed vigor. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew