The 5 Stages of Revision

Image taken from page 44 of 'Life's Roses: a volume of selected poems'

About two months ago I had what will likely be the first of many experiences with negative feedback, something that is part and parcel of working in academia (or anywhere, really). I submitted an article to a book collection over the summer of 2014, and after giving it very little thought for the following nine months, it returned to me in May 2015 with a request for major revisions, of the type where you may honestly just as well re-write the entire article. This week, after a very long revision process, I finally (re)submitted the chapter for consideration in a book collection. Maybe those of you who have had children can let me know just how melodramatic I’m being in comparing the revision process to childbirth. Whatever the analogy, a year down the road I’ve developed a whole new relationship with the revision process. While I’m 100% sure I’ll change my mind about this once the experience is no longer fresh in my mind, at this exact moment I’m inclined to say that I’ll never write another article again.

In case I’m not the only one struggling with these emotions at the moment, I thought I would use another melodramatic metaphor and share my five-step journey through the revision process. Writer Jenna Black has described her own five stages of revision upon submitting a manuscript, which include dread, panic, denial, acceptance, and relief. I’ve got my own set of five to add to this list, and they all take place during the re-writing process, crammed in between ‘acceptance’ and ‘relief’. Because the British Library recently shared a massive library of more than a million, copyright-free images on Flickr, I took the opportunity use a few by way of illustration:

Image taken from page 111 of 'Woodland Romances; or, Fables and Fancies'1. Destructive Shock

All work can be improved, and often with just a little reflection it can be improved drastically. You’ve given the comments a few days or weeks to sink in, and now you go back to them only to find that they’re still as upsetting and demotivating as they were the first time. What were you thinking? Everything is pretty much wrong. You’ve clearly got a lot of work ahead of you, and not nearly enough time to do it. You spend a lot of time contemplating backing out, or just starting again from scratch.

Image taken from page 147 of 'The Tragedy of Ida Noble, etc. [A novel.]'2. Bottomless Ennui

You’ve now got a very rough second draft that you can almost live with, but you’ve still got a long way to go. Is it even worth it? Is anything worth it? You put so much effort into the first version, and look how that turned out.

This is the phase where you spend a lot of time staring blankly at the screen, re-reading texts you already know by heart, and writing a lot of sentences that you immediately delete again. Who knows — maybe you’ll never be able to write anything good ever again.

Image taken from page 10 of 'Mount Despair, and other stories, etc'3. Grudging Acceptance

You’ve put too much work into this to  quit now. You spend long, grueling days in a darkened room, muttering to yourself and updating footnotes. It doesn’t matter how awful the end product will be — you’re going to get it finished if it kills you.

You start to develop headaches from the glow of the computer screen, and so switch back and forth between computer and paper editing. You make copious amounts of notes and numerous outlines, most of which you end up discarding.

Image taken from page 63 of 'Thrilling Life Stories for the Masses'4. Tentative Enthusiasm

This stage sneaks up on you slowly and gradually as you struggle to emerge from your revision-induced stupor. Maybe this isn’t so bad after all. You’ve actually responded to most of the comments, the main argument is surprisingly coherent, and now the piece just needs some polishing. Unfortunately you’ve now read through it so many times your brain is actually incapable of seeing the typos that still remain. You pass the draft on to a friend or family member and try to forget about it for a little while before you move on to the final read-through.

It will probably all turn out alright in the end.

Image taken from page 80 of 'Nasby in Exile: or, six months of travel in England, ... France, Germany ... Illustrated'5. Submission Panic

As the deadline (official or self-imposed) looms closer, you start to revert back to stage one of the revision cycle. What if your changes haven’t been as good as you thought after all? What if you’ve just created a whole new set of problems? Maybe you should have taken a safer route, and not changed quite so much. You upload a draft of the article to the e-mail you’ve pre-written, then delete it and do just one more last check for typos and formatting glitches. Finally you hit ‘send’, and spend the next two hours agonising over whether you did the right thing. Eventually you get a submission receipt and are left with the paltry consolation that, if you did forget something, it’s too late to change it now.

Does anyone else have memories of a terrible revision process? If so I’d love to hear about them in the comments. I’ll bring the metaphorical tissues.


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