Perfection through Revision


An image of the United States Constitution in 1789. The Senate read through the Constitution making revisions to the amendments before sending the document back to House of Representatives for consideration and approval.

Perfection doesn’t just happen. Whether it is perfection in nature, like a flower mixing sugar and caffeine in its nectar to attract bees and help them remember the location of the plant; or perfection in human endeavors, like Roman architects constructing arch bridges that are still in use after 2,000 years; or perfection in human society, like enshrining freedoms and rights for all humans in the United States Constitution, perfection is a combination of dedication, patience, creativity, recombination, and experimentation over a long period of time. Writing is no different. Perfection is earned. It’s ephemeral. It’s rare. No author worth anything can write something once and have it be perfect.

The GRE does not provide us enough time to write a perfect essay. But we do have enough time to get close. With only 30 minutes, you will need to save time to edit and revise your essay because that is the only way you will get close to perfection, and thus close to a perfect score.

This article is a collection of quotes from authors about revising. Each quote illustrates one important aspect of revision. Use these quotes as inspiration and guidance when writing.


1. Nothing comes out perfect the first time

“I have rewritten–often several times–every word I have ever written. My pencils outlast their erasers.” ― Vladimir Nabokov

For some reason, some students think that in one great attempt, they can produce a perfect piece of writing, or at least that they can get a passing grade on a timed essay. Almost every one of these students failed, though, when it came down to writing the essay. You must save time to revise. Just as Mr. Nabokov intimates: you should spend more time revising than actually producing new writing.


2. Revise while you write

“I don’t write a quick draft and then revise; instead, I work slowly page by page, revising and polishing.” ― Dean Koontz

Don’t wait until you finish your essay to revise. Before you write a sentence, ask yourself: “What is it I want to say?”, “How is it related to the topic of this paragraph?”, and “What will I say in the next sentence?” These questions will help you to focus and organize as you write. After you write a sentence, go back and re-read it; look for common grammatical errors that you tend to make. Also, when you finish a paragraph, go back to the beginning and re-read the paragraph. By revising as you go, there will be less to do at the end.


3. Revise at the end of writing

“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” ― Raymond Chandler

When you finish writing, you will need to go back through the whole essay to revise any errors. That means, you should save about 3-5 minutes at the end of time to revise. I have known some writers, just like Mr. Chandler, who can only write by dumping as much information onto the page and spending a majority of the time editing, chopping, adding, and reshuffling the writing. If this is your style, embrace it. But I would encourage you to plan and revise as you go also, so that in one writing, you produce a fairly complete essay.


4. Writing changes your mind

“When you write…some things that come very late in the creation change what you were conceiving back when you started. Therefore, you have to go back and revise.” ― William Kennedy

This is an excellent principle to keep in mind. You may have a thesis that you start writing with, but by the time you work through all of your examples and arrive at the conclusion, your mind has changed. Your opinion may have shifted in a subtle way, and your explanations may lead to a conclusion other than the one you initially intended. This is a great part of writing–discovering what you think–so make sure to go back to your thesis and re-read it. Make sure it is truly the point you are supporting in your essay, and if it isn’t, make a change.


5. Be someone else when you revise

“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” ― Don Roff

One of the hardest parts of revising is editing and deleting your own work. That’s why you should imagine that it is not your writing. The trick is to disassociate yourself from what you just wrote. Try to imagine that this is an essay that your archnemesis wrote, and the more you destroy it, the more you destroy their power over you. Don’t get attached to the sentences and phrases. Be a cut-throat, brutal revisionist!


6. There are not good writers, only good revisionists

“I have never thought of myself as a good writer. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters.” ― James A. Michener

No one is born a great writer. Some people may have a sunny disposition for writing, but that doesn’t mean that everything they write is perfect. Actually, those people will be the most brutal critics towards their writing, demanding only the best sentences and paragraphs. Any truly great writer is a dedicated revisionist. So, make yourself a great writer by becoming a great rewriter, like Mr. Michener.


7. Don’t stop until you run out of time

“I rewrite a great deal. I’m always fiddling, always changing something. I’ll write a few words–then I’ll change them. I add. I subtract. I work and fiddle and keep working and fiddling, and I only stop at the deadline.” ― Ellen Goodman

Writing has to be published or turned in, which means authors have to stop writing. If there were no limits, authors, like Mrs. Goodman, would keep adding and subtracting from their writing. You should be the same way: revise until there is no more time left. You can always improve a sentence or choose a better word to convey your meaning. Thus, write quickly in order to save time at the end for revision. Use all that time to produce the best piece of writing you are capable of producing.



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