Donald Hall on revision


First drafts of anything are difficult for me. I prefer revising, rewriting. I’m not the kind of writer like Richard Wilbur or Thomas Mann who finishes one segment before going on to another. Wilbur finishes the first line before he starts the second. I lack the ability to judge myself except over many drafts and usually over years. Revising, I go through a whole manuscript over and over and over. Some short prose pieces I’ve rewritten fifteen or twenty times; poems get up to two hundred fifty or three hundred drafts. I don’t recommend it, but for me it seems necessary. And I do more drafts as I get older.

Or maybe I just like it. Even with prose, I love the late stage in rewriting. I play with sentences, revise their organization, work with the rhythms, work with punctuation as though I were handling line breaks in poetry. In poetry I play with punctuation, line breaks, internal sounds, interconnections among images. I tinker with little things, and it’s my greatest pleasure in writing.


When I was young, critics helped teach me to read poems. Then critics or poets-being-critics have—in person and by letter—led me to discard poems or to rip them up and start over again. I seek their abrasiveness out. I’ve even been helped by book reviews, mostly by some general dissatisfaction with my work. But if a book review is a personal attack—someone obviously hates you—it doesn’t do any good. You just walk up and down feeling the burden of this death ray aimed at you. The critics who help have been annoyed with my work and make it clear why without actually wanting to kill me. They give me new occasions for scrutiny, for crossing out.