Writing is Like Metaphor Series: Revising is Like Sculpting with Play-Doh

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I’m not just saying this one to my students; this is a lesson I need to be reminded of myself. Writing can take us on some weird, wonderful journeys. We can start out writing one thing and find ourselves in the midst of something completely unexpected. It’s one of writing’s joys.
But, especially for students in a strict academic or professional setting, it can also be a liability.
I always tell my students to talk to their instructors if they found a new project while writing. Maybe they can still use it. But the truth is that if your boss asked you to craft a memo by the end of the day and you bring her a fantastic epic poem, it’s not going to go over well. Writing is situation- and audience-bound, and that means that we often (or, in my case, always) have to reshape what we’re working on.
That’s why I like to use Play-Doh as a metaphor for revision. When you’re just playing around, you can make all kinds of interesting shapes, and you can even discover new, interesting things. But often you have a specific goal in mind. Let’s say you’re sculpting it so your teammate can guess a clue in a board game. In that case, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your T-rex is; they’re never going to guess “car.”
And once you’ve reached that point where you realize what you’re sculpting isn’t what you need, you have to squash it. That doesn’t mean you lose the material; it’s all still there. It doesn’t mean it was a waste of time; you became more skilled at sculpting. It doesn’t mean that your T-rex was bad; it was lovely. It just means that this particular shape doesn’t fit this particular need. Squash it. Try again.
For many beginning writers (and, if we’re being honest, more seasoned writers, too) squashing our work and starting over can be really, really hard. It feels like time wasted and work lost. It feels like a failure. And if every time we start writing it ends in a failure, we aren’t going to like writing very much. But squashing Play-Doh is one of the best things about playing with it (just hand that T-rex to a two-year-old and watch what happens). If we could bring some of that acceptance of change (and even destruction) into our writing revision, we’d be able to make a lot more peace with the process.
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