process talk: drafting & revision

Emily Dickinson sends a revision through the hedge to her sister-in-law Sue, asking “Is this frostier?” from the E.D. Online Archive

Reader, remember when we were talking about organdization? Me, too, barely. We last talked about my generative process. So today I thought I’d write about how I organize my drafting and revision process.  But wait, you might be thinking, isn’t drafting a generative process? What’s the difference? All I can say is that the place poems come from, for me, is different than the moment of sitting down and deciding to write a draft, and needs its own space and time for cultivation. So for me, the processes feel separate. But you might rather roll yours in together, which doesn’t mean yours isn’t deep or uncultivated, just that everyone’s process is a little different.

So: drafting, revision. Last time, we talked about how my paper and electronic files reflect the inputs and outputs of the generative process. The same is true for my drafting and revision process. The outputs of the generative process become inputs, and new outputs (and corresponding files) are created.

Here’s what my drafting and revision process look like.

So at the top you see all the inputs to my drafting process (these are the outputs of the generative process). When I sit down to draft, I have all these inputs with me in physical form. I like paper. This does not mean that I haul all 5 folders with me to the library — no, instead I pull out from each of those folders whatever I want to work on that day and put it into a mobile paper folder: “this week – drafts”. (I realize I didn’t put this on the flow chart – sorry).

Next I look through those source materials and make notes about what seem interesting — a word, a phrase, a group of words from a wordbank, etc. If research seems warranted, I do a little light research (y’know, wikipedia, other online sources, or sometimes I actually walk into the stacks at the library and pull a book off the shelf). I paste any source notes into a document which will house the new draft (and, in the future, each revision).

I then set boundaries around the draft. I can’t tell you how important this is to my process. I might use a Poem Map to set the boundaries: 3 stanzas, quatrains, ends in the imperative voice. I might draw more words from a wordbank and declare that each line of the poem must contain one of them. I might go looking for a very defined prompt or exercise. My po-friends, C-1 and C-2,  and I have been talking about constraints lately and C-1 noticed that it’s always language-based constraints that enable her to enter a draft. Once she articulated that, I realized it was true for me as well. So language-based constraints would include using wordbanks, copying syntax, using poem maps, noticing parts of speech, and anything else that is focused on the language of a draft.

I should note that I always, always, ALWAYS read other people’s poems before drafting. I mean right before drafting. Sometimes my language-based constraints will come from whatever poems(s) I’ve just read. Sometimes not. But I can’t stress enough the importance of reading others’ work as a way into my own (this is also true during my generative process of “morning reading and writing”).

Ok, so we’ve looked over source materials, read other people’s poems, and set constraints. Now it’s time to draft. Ready, go.

I always draft by hand, or at the very least begin drafting by hand. Sometimes if things are coming too fast, I’ll switch over to my computer mid-draft.

Now there’s a draft, and it’s my strong opinion that every draft should be printed. If I know I want to work on it, I put it right into my “active revision” folder; if I know I don’t want to work on it or I’m not sure, I put it into my “drafts” folder (these folders are both paper and electronic). The reason why I think it’s important to print every draft is this: you might hate the draft today, but 3 months from now you might read it again and think, Gee, it’s not bad. Maybe I should work on it. Or it might contain exactly the line you need to end your newest poem. In my opinion, giving every draft a sheet of paper to live on is a spiritual act. The draft now has it’s place in the world. It’s open for business. It’s an artifact. It might never turn into a poem, but it’s a draft and there’s a place for it in my file cabinet. If nothing else, as the weeks go by into years, I see that folder thickening and feel a sense of accomplishment.

One last thing: In order to go back and read old drafts and/or find the one line you need for your new poem, you do have to, well, go back and read old drafts from time to time. I fold this act into my process, usually on a Sunday when I’m trying to figure out the abnormal week ahead. I don’t do it every week — maybe once a month.

Moving on.

Revision. We talked about it during poetry month, remember? Each week, I choose a few poems out of the “active revision” file (paper and electronic) and put them into the “this week – revision” file (paper only). Again, I’m setting boundaries and preventing myself from feeling overwhelmed by my active revision file, which is literally 6 inches thick. I might not actually revise all the poems in my this week file; maybe I’ll only get to one of them, but I have options (but not too many options) for that week.

And so I revise. Sometimes I revise in waves — a few poems, all the same craft element. Sometimes I do major surgery on one poem. Whatever new version exists, it goes in that poem’s file (electronic; which also contains source notes, the draft, and previous versions) in the “active revision” folder. I used to keep a file for each revision of every poem. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that keeping a separate file for each revision of every poem became very unwieldy. Each revision gets noted with version number and date, and each new version gets printed and stapled onto previous versions (remember, they’re all in the same file, but there’s no need to print out the entire file every time). Again, I see this as a spiritual act: I am giving this version of the poem it’s place in the world.

Rinse and repeat, etc.

Once I think a poem is “done” (laughter), I put a clean copy of the final version into an electronic folder called “clean copies,” and a clean copy (paper) into my submissions binder (more on that forthcoming). The big thick stack of 47 revisions, the draft, and source notes goes into a box called “workpapers,” and I also have a “workpapers” electronic file where the document file goes. That clears it out of the active work file so things feel more manageable.

Are you still with me? I think I’m still here. Oh, I forgot to mention that I have a school-year goal of one revision a week (borrowed from my go-to gal, Sandy Longhorn). Prior to setting that goal, I kind of felt like I had to write a new draft every time I sat down to write, which was bad for two reasons: (1) not reasonable, and (2) not reasonable. Also, it doesn’t leave room for all the other things poets do.

Well, soon I’ll be ditching my poet hat for the mama hat. I hope this look at one person’s drafting and revision process was helpful. Whatever your process is, if you think of it in terms of inputs, process, and outputs you’ll know what files and folders to make. Stay tuned for the submissions process and the unveiling (ha, ha) of my grand (ha, ha) electronic file structure.

10 thoughts on “process talk: drafting & revision

  1. Since reading last week, I’ve made myself new folders and have adapted some of your generative processes. I’m happy to say, that things are working pretty well. When completely integrated, my system won’t be nearly as thorough as yours, (laziness factor, ha ha) but it will definitely be more organdized!

    It’s funny the way different people work: I only print out my poems when they are “done”. I feel like they are in a virtual womb when I’m working on them, drafting, revising, etc. and then when they are ready, they are born in to our physical world.

    Thanks so much for doing all the hard work of organizing for me, (ha ha) and for your always informative and entertaining posts. 🙂

    • So glad they’re helpful to you. I’m not always perfectly organdized — in fact, there are many stacks on my desk right now. But at least I have a system to fall into when I get around to clearing the piles.

      I’m fascinated by the fact that you wait to print until the poem’s “done.” I can see the whole womb/incubation angle. I’m not very good at working on the screen, and I like paper, hence my predisposition to print things out.

      • I totally get that. I’ve just become more comfortable using the computer, but not until I’m ready to actually sit down and write “the poem”. Drafting, notes, exercises etc are always handwritten in my notebooks.

        I love that you are so super organized, and that you are sharing it all with us.

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