How do you revise your work?

I was introduced to the love of language while I was still in middle school. I borrowed a book of dirty jokes from one of my classmates (I am old so these were pre-internet days). I read through the jokes and memorized the ones that I understood and told them as often as I could. It became a thing where my friends and I would trade dirty jokes back and forth. In an attempt to memorize the long and drawn out jokes that my friends would inevitably stumble through, I would shorten the jokes to their most basic parts to remember them easier. Once I knew the basic parts of the joke I could embellish and make the jokes long and rambling like they were told to me in the first place. Through repeated tellings, I realized that the embellishments slowed the pace of the jokes and made them less funny, so I began to tell the bare bones jokes rapid fire and my friends loved it. I didn’t realize, I was learning an essential skill for writers. By repeating the jokes and reformulating them to be funnier, I was learning the basics of revision.

I can take you through the process step by step with a sample joke as I might have had it told to me when I was young.

Three men were walking down the street. One was Russian, one was Polish, and one was American. There was a bar in the middle of the sidewalk. The Russian and the Polish man smacked their heads into the bar, but the American ducked.

At this point the joke is not very funny. It is being drawn out and over told, but it could be pretty funny for a 10 year old. So to remember it without having it retold over and over, I would break the joke down into its important parts.

The Intro: There are three people walking down the street.

The action: Two hit their heads into a bar.

The Punchline: The last man ducks.

I would remember the joke like this and add embellishments where I thought they were needed, but the joke still took too long to get to the punch line. As a 10 year old I needed to get out as many jokes as I could before my friend remembered a joke he could tell me. So I would begin to retell the joke without the embellishment: A Russian and a Polish man walked up to a bar and hit their heads. The American Ducked.

This wasn’t that funny because the action was being over explained and telegraphing the punchline, so I simplified it: A Russian man and a polish man walked into a bar. The American Ducked.

That was a lot better, but identifying the nationalities of the men involved in the joke (even though all the jokes that people tell on the streets seem to require this type of detail) didn’t seem to be adding anything to the laugh that I got at the end of the joke. So I shortened the joke even further: Two men walked into a bar. The third one ducked.

Now the joke was fast and funny. And any type of writing works just the same as a stupid joke for 10 year olds. First you get the writing on paper in draft form. Then you decide what the most important parts are and rewrite them over and over until you have distilled the story, poem, or even essay into its most powerful form. And just like the process of a 10 year old revising a joke, it takes countless rewritings before the revision process is done.

What is your revision process like? And What got you interested in writing in the first place?

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