Research & Insights

By Mollie Allick, October 29, 2010

Visions and revisions


Writing is easy. Just sit in front of a typewriter, open up a vein and bleed it out drop by drop.
— Red Smith


When I was in college, a professor I respected said that one of the best ways to demystify writing is to write like people you admire. Specifically, to find passages that you love, and try to revise them in your own words. This exercise proved invaluable. It allowed me to walk in their literary footsteps, shedding light on why they chose — or avoided — certain words, punctuation, and syntax.

With this in mind, I recently wondered whether you can crowdsource writing, specifically, revising.

I posted a task through CrowdFlower that asked the crowd to rewrite four famous quotations, pithily, while preserving their meaning.

In one evening, I was able to get 20 revisions of each quotation from people across the country. I won’t summarize them all here, but I will pull a few highlights.

Original Quotation 1 (from Macbeth, William Shakespeare):

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/ To the last syllable of recorded time;/ And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!/ Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more. It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.

Revision 1:

Time marches on, and everyone dies; life is meaningless.
— Hatboro, PA

Life creeps along and ends suddenly like the end of a bad play. The play is dramatic and had poor acting, and has no point or moral in the end.
–Salt Lake City, UT

Original Quotation 2 (from “The Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbes):

No arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Revision 2:

The life of a man on his own is barbaric and degrading.
— East Aurora, NY

No art, letters or society. Worst of all, living in fear of being alone, poor and short.
— Arlington, TX

Life is all but a mere scam.
–Overland Park, KS

Original Quotation 3 (“First Inaugural Address,” Abraham Lincoln):

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Revision 3:

We’re fools for fighting each other. We should co-operate, and let our example bring everyone together.
— Plattsburgh, NY

We must be friends, we should now forget each other. Our memories will always stay through our rough times and good times.
— Tallahassee, FL

Original Quotation 4 (from “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg):

“They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.”

Revision 4:

Your reputation follows you and it is a bad one, makeup and lust.
— Iola, WI

This city isn’t a nice place, it’s full of hookers.
— Milledgeville, GA

The full data is available here.

What’s your opinion? Can the revision process be crowdsourced?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.