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Finding Meaning Through the Spirit of Revision

Katelyn Lamm

            Nothing came easier to me than writing a piece of prose off the top of my head for an assignment during high school and my first years of college. I never felt the need to look back at my work after spending hours typing an assignment, be it an essay or a fictional story. Since most of my early classes in college required some kind of revision, I looked through my papers for grammar and punctuation errors, with no regard of what central idea the piece conveyed. In my English 50 class, I wrote a piece that I thought was near perfection, but my professor encouraged me to keep revising. After carefully looking at content and resubmitting the piece five times, I developed a sense of what revision really means: looking at the piece as a whole and not just paying attention to grammatical aspects.

            In preparation for this essay, I read my first and sixth draft much like I read Donald Murray’s two versions of his piece about World War II, reading paragraph by paragraph to see what I had changed. I never realized how much omitting unimportant material and adding to a paragraph can change the whole meaning of a piece. For this piece especially, including more about the history of the resorts made the piece flow better and more interesting to my audience.

            My initial intention of this piece was to explain what “ghost lights” are and how I was affected by them, but the meaning of the piece turned into an account of how I adjusted to moving from a tight-knit neighborhood to a lonely mountain home. The relationship between me and Angie became the central theme, and I used the “ghost lights” experience to show how our friendship helped me accept my new home. I wanted to keep revision to a minimum at first because I didn’t want to intrude on my ghost story, but adding more to the background and developing the relationship between my cousin and I made the story take on a whole new meaning.

            The guidelines for English 50, the class for which I wrote “Ghost Lights,” were very vague; we could write about any topic in any form we wanted from poetry to prose. After spending a weary night in October in front of my computer trying to come up with something to write about, a ghostly experience with my cousin and neighbor, Angie, seemed appropriate. The story was based on our sighting of “ghost lights,” little glowing orbs we thought were the spirits of vacationers from the early twentieth century to the resorts near our houses. The resorts are gone now, but we believed the spirits of the vacationers still remained.

            Though the events seemed serious to Angie and me at the time, I wrote the story with some humor based on the perspective I had then. I was not in junior high anymore and was not as gullible when it came to believing in ghost stories. I still thought ghosts may exist, but I wasn’t as quick to go into the woods with a video camera looking for them. While writing the piece, I stepped into my mindset as a thirteen- year-old and replayed the events. I was sure what we saw at the time was supernatural; but if I had approached the incident more scientifically, the paper would have taken on a different theme. In Robert Yagelski’s article, he refers to an individual’s views like mine as a “dizzying array of social and cultural interconnections,” or in other words, “the self…is socially constituted” (211). The voice in a paper is made up of everything a writer identifies himself as.  Everyone has multiple selves based on the influence of the people and situations that affected their lives.  My views were shaped by being raised in a family who was fascinated by the supernatural and having a cousin who shared the same interest.  I truly believed that ghosts existed and ignored anyone who tried to explain the occurrence otherwise.

            I thought writing the piece would be really easy, so I wrote everything I remembered without much attention to detail or keeping my readers interested. I felt comfortable with what I wrote and thought my professor would not want me to make significant changes. When I got my first draft back, discouraging marks were all over the paper. What interested me most were the comments he left at the end of the paper: he thought the story had a lot of potential, and I should continue to revise.

            With continued encouragement by my professor, I re-submitted the piece five more times, with the help of feedback from my peer groups, whole class workshops, and the professor. I accepted many of these suggestions because I trusted their opinions about the piece, since they were my only audience at the time. I used their suggestions and my own judgment when making revisions. Yagelski focuses on this point when examining Donald Murray’s revision process of a personal poem he wrote. He refers to Murray’s process as “a decidedly social act, not only in that the contexts within which he writes inevitably shape his writing but also in that he himself is shaped by those contexts” (213). Although the “self” is highly individualized, the social aspect adds constraint to the writer and shapes the views of the writer.  Some of these ideas from others can ultimately be rejected during the revision process.  I completely rewrote many parts based on what others said and was trying to make the piece more captivating to my audience. I even went so far as to make the font smaller so the length wouldn’t overwhelm my peer groups. Still, there were pieces I wasn’t comfortable changing despite suggestions from others. I revised based on what I felt the piece needed.  The suggestions were helpful and influenced my writing, but in the end, I chose what to include and exclude in my story.

            Throughout the revision process, I spent much of my time focusing on grammar and punctuation errors, and rewording. In the words of Nancy Sommers, I “concentrate[d] on particular words apart from their role in the text” (381). I plugged words into the thesaurus on my computer to make the piece sound better. For example, I initially used the word “disappear” when the lights faded into the darkness, but the thesaurus helped me come up with “evaporate” to replace it. While focusing on wording, I didn’t realize I was repeating my thoughts and using unnecessary words. For instance, one sentence I wrote read, “The woman placed the weeds in her basket, carefully examining each one before putting them into her basket.” I spent so much time trying to find a good way to explain what she was doing that I didn’t realize that I was being repetitive.

            I cut a great deal of text from this piece in the revision process. My professor bracketed parts of sentences to omit, and most of the problems were chunks of unnecessary adjectives. I thought using a lot of adjectives would give the scenes more detail, but I found it intruded on the flow of the piece. When referring to adjectives, Donald Murray says, “I always feel a tiny sense of failure when using one” (88).   When using adjectives in writing, they are mostly used as “fillers” and should not be used in excess.  I agree with his view, especially when using more than one to describe something. In my piece, I cut “softly blowing fir trees” simply to “fir trees.” Angie saw the ghost of a woman standing in the fog in her backyard between the fir trees. I realized I didn’t need to say the trees were “softly blowing” because I used fog to make the scene seem eerie.

            Although the story improved by eliminating some information, much of my revision was adding to the text. On the sentence level, I found inserting more verbs gave the story more action, especially in parts that explained the history of the resorts. Murray says, “I write with verbs – simple, action verbs – that provide energy to the sentence” (88). My peers and my professor wanted to know more about what the resorts were like in the past to understand why there may be spirits left behind. I added to the background sections because they were too general and unclear. Verbs helped them come to life. For example, rather than simply writing “the central hotel caught fire and had to be demolished” to sum up the demise of the main resort, I wrote, “What had once been an incredible resort with many luxurious rooms and fancy restaurants was in ruins, as lost as the Titanic on its final voyage. Shards of broken dishes, blackened furniture, and half-burnt linens lay among the rubble…Now only the foundations of the resorts remained in the woods.” I thought this description of what happened to the central resort gave the reader more background and was much stronger than a single sentence.

            One aspect I struggled with a lot was the conclusion. It ended abruptly and my peers found it a little clichéd. In the first draft, I wrote, “Katie finally realized living on the mountain was not so bad. She uncovered a friend she never knew she had and came to love living on the mountain.” I revised this sentence several times and the final draft read: “But Katie knew the mountain had a life of its own and she was now a part of it.” The sentence is more general, but the point was made just as effectively.

            While looking at my final revision of my story while writing this essay, I kept finding areas that still needed revision. Like Sommers stated in her case study, “Writing appears to be more of a seed than a line” (386).   I consider the revision process to be continual in all of my writing, so I don’t know if I will ever consider this piece completely perfect.  I want to continue to revise this piece and hopefully reach a point that I feel comfortable sending it for publication.

 

Works Cited

Murray, Donald M. Expecting the Unexpected: Teaching Myself-and Others-to Read and Write.
     
 Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1989.

 

Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.”
      College Composition and Communication 31.4 (1980): 378-88.

Yagelski, Robert P. “Who’s Afraid of Subjectivity? The Composing Process and Postmodernism or
      A Student of Donald Murray Enters the Age of Postmodernism.” Taking Stock: The Writing Process
      Movement in the ’90s
. Ed. Lad Tobin and Thomas Newkirk. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1994.