That belief is still with us today. There have been a few Romantic-style backlashes against revision—from the Beats, for instance, who often wrote with feverish speed and claimed, in the words of Jack Kerouac, that authors should “never afterthink to ‘improve’ or defray impressions.” But in most parts of literary culture, revision has become as important as inspiration.
In the last 30 years, however, technology has shifted again, and our ideas about writing and revising are changing along with it. Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.
“The ideal environment for revision is one where you can preserve several different versions of a text,” Sullivan says. With only one in-progress draft on a computer, we lose the cues that led the Modernists to step back from their work and to revise it. “It’s that moment of typing things up that led to the really surprising and inventive changes,” Sullivan says. “The authors came back to their text, but it seemed estranged.”
So why do we continue to champion revision? Sullivan suggests it’s partly due to the literary ideals and habits we’ve inherited from the Modernists. She also mentions the professionalization of creative writing, which pushed authors like Carver and Oates to teach at universities. “Writers need to look more like professors and to discuss their laborious processes,” Sullivan says. “‘We can’t teach you how to write, but we can teach you how to revise.’ And it’s a big business.”
Still, at a time when we’re losing the technological incentives that helped create our style of revision in the first place, there’s a chance our commitment to it may wane. We now revise in real time, doing something closer to Milton fiddling in his margins than to Hemingway retyping his work. Perhaps this is already encouraging more spontaneous and conversational kinds of literary writing.
As the history of revision makes clear, however, there are many ways to produce great literature, and Sullivan, for her part, does not seem too worried about what’s next. “We tend to be very hopeful about how much revision will achieve,” Sullivan says, “how it will transform a mediocre first draft into a masterpiece.” But revision, she adds, has always come with a cost. “It is potentially wasteful, too,” she says, “and I think we’ve lost sight of something that seemed obvious to earlier generations—revision can go too far, making something worse instead of better.”
Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. E-mail email@example.com.