Revising Prose is the name of the best book I know of on the subject. In it, author Richard Lanham outlines the “paramedic method,” as he calls it, for eliminating wordiness, achieving clarity, and polishing style. The method is brilliantly direct, practical, and applciable, although later editions of the book have tended to clutter the approach and needlessly—indeed, counter-productively—improve upon the elegant original. I use the book when I teach advanced nonfiction writing to undergraduates and have even concocted my own exercise booklet on which students can practice the principles Lanham outlines.
The title of this post, however, is meant to encompass more than Lanham’s paramedic method. Its main message is that revision is, alas, an annoyingly endless process. At its best, it will seem, for a time, to have concluded. Then, weeks, months, even years later, you’re poring over a piece of writing you simply knew was perfected only to find some blunder blotting the page. No matter how much experience as a writer I amass, I’m never prepared to read an infelicity in a piece I’ve published that makes me want to remove my name from underneath the title. Sometimes it’s a typo or a stray typographical mark (like a mysterious vertical line that appears between words in one of my published essays). Other times it’s a word or a phrase that I can’t believe escaped my (or someone else’s) editorial pen.
Although the point may seem too obvious to warrant notice, where writing is concerned, perfection is out of the question. It’s a potentially fruitful goal, but only insofar as it’s acknowledged to be unattainable. Pursuing it is all about revising prose—not just the willingness to do so, but also the manner in which revision is carried out.
Not everyone drafts and revises the same way. Many people get something—anything—down and then return to a very rough draft and take it from there. I don’t work that way, and I’ve learned over the years that I’m not alone. For what it’s worth, then, I’ll follow up this general post with practical advice derived from my experiences as a rabid reviser.