First This, Then That

It can be very helpful to understand that the work of writing (or, as it is too often clumsily called, the writing process) is best seen in two parts: drafting and revision. Drafting means filling the blank page or screen with all the ruminations that come to mind when you first cast your attention to the idea you want to say something about. Drafting at heart is the creative moment, which means it is a moment, long or short, of allowing thoughts to assemble themselves. No!, and no! again, will drive a stake into that creative heart.

Revision, on the other hand, is what we do to the draft when we have said our piece to some extent about the idea we are holding forth on. If drafting is creative, revising is shaping, fitting, measuring—all to the point of presenting our readers with a meaningful and attractive design of our thoughts. Properly speaking, we write only one draft; but that one draft will undergo as many revisions as might be necessary to polish the rough-hewn first thoughts that made up the draft. And what is called a final draft is merely the last revision of our work.

I recently came across an interesting description of this draft and revision understanding of composition by Alan Pryce-Jones in his essay entitled “The Freedom of the Imagination,” which appeared as a chapter in a work called The Arts, Artists and Thinkers, a symposium of thoughtful essays edited by John Todd (Longmans, 1958). We are prone to equate creativity with imagination, and Pryce-Jones is making the point that the imagination itself, free though it is, must be tempered by the purpose it is being called to serve: “in any of the arts” he says, “the more strictly the imagination is controlled, with an end in view, the more powerful are its operations.” “The imagination,” he goes on to say, “must be kept in focus as one part, and no more, of the creative temperament.”

The imagination is at work, and dominantly so, in our drafting of a composition; this is what it means to allow thoughts to arrive. But all the phrases and clauses and sentences that we do freely permit to take their place in our first writing are not always of presentable appearance. Creation is messy—almost always so, and so it is the work of revising that tailors some of them and sends others packing. Pryce-Jones refers to this as the work of the “organizing faculties,” and his explanation of this complementary partnership in what he calls the “creative temperament” is worth quoting in full:

That temperament says, in effect, ‘I require to make a house, or a book, or a picture, or a symphony.’ In order to do any of these things it will need much more than imagination, and to begin with there can be no harm in letting the imagination soar away as high as it can reach. That will leave room for the organizing faculties to get to work, and for some relation to be established between supply and demand. Then the imagination has to be hauled back, like a balloon on its string. It has to take the concrete problem in hand, and compose a plan for the organizing faculties to carry out. In fact, whether it likes it or not, it already finds itself far from free.

“Compose a plan for the organizing faculties to carry out.” That, I think, says well what the second stage of critical revision is about. Without principles to follow, the imagination wants ever more in all directions, such is its zest for life. With principles—the rules that organize a particular art—all that unbounded imaginative energy is shaped, made into a means to communicate the thoughts and ideas in our minds. That is the work of grammar and its application in revision, and the very point in gathering slowly and methodically an understanding of the structure that can carry our imagination to good effect.


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