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  • (Re)vision

    Perhaps the least understood and most powerful part of the writing process, revision is the crucial art of seeing (that’s where the “vision” part comes in) your writing with fresh eyes as a first step in the effort to improve it. I am often surprised by the number of writers who either confuse revision with editing or simply refuse to revise, an errant act of hubris that hinders good writing. This essential step of the writing process is every writer’s greatest point of leverage in producing better writing. But there’s no denying that it’s difficult work. Today I’d like to share some revision strategies that could catapult your manuscripts to the top of editor’s stacks.

    What is revision? Revision is an ongoing process of rethinking a piece of writing. It involves refining the purpose of a piece, reorganizing its presentation, reviving stale prose, and discovering through a critical eye, a deeper and more refined vision of a work. If writing is thinking, then revision is the ongoing, extensive process of rethinking your writing.

    Revision takes time because it is not the same as editing—fixing a few commas, correcting spelling or usage errors, selecting better and more specific words, or rearranging a sentence or two for fluency. Revision should lead the writer to deeper discovery. When Earnest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” I like to think he meant that first drafts can be full of incredible potential; however only when the writer is brave enough to dive back in to take a deeper, longer look at a first draft is that potential ever realized.

    Utilize the following revision strategies in layers to be strategic in improving your writing.

    Revision strategies that work for all forms of writing:

    ·   Take some time away from the piece after composing your first draft.  This distance allows you to view a piece with more objectivity for the larger, more substantive changes of revision. After writing that first draft, put your piece on hold for awhile. Experts disagree about how much time you should take before revisiting a piece to revise. I suggest at least a week or two; others advise anything between waiting just a few hours to putting a piece on hold for nearly a decade. You’ll need to find your perfect window of opportunity for revision. The point is to gain enough distance from the piece to allow yourself to see it more objectively and to cool your ardor for the “darlings” in the writing that just aren’t working. 

    ·   Once you’ve taken some time, make sure the piece you plan to revise is something that resonates something deep within. If you do not love a piece, the revision process will be that much more difficult. You may find yourself giving up if the piece does not move you.

    ·   Use a highly critical eye and think big picture as you revise. I never suggest this critical eye be a part of the generation of a first draft of writing, but your critic’s voice is very useful during revision. Let your inner English professor emerge as you experiment with crafting a better version of writing. Don’t just tinker; think big changes—form, order, structure, organization, and cohesiveness. It’s important that all the parts of your writing work to push a piece through to a unified whole. Editors read with a critical eye, so you should revise with one.

    ·   Reading your work aloud should be a big part of the revision process. The way the piece sounds matters. Revise and revise your work to create a sense of flow in the language.

    ·   After reading your piece as a whole to experience its impact, rework the piece section by section. Breaking it down into parts will make the process seem less overwhelming. Your work here should be strategic, focusing on cutting parts that don’t push your work forward and adding sections that do.


    Revision strategies for fiction:

    ·   Beginnings matter. If you start a piece with a lot of back story, cut that. Your editor will want to. It’s often best to begin your story with action, with dialogue. An in medias res (Latin for “in the midst of things”) beginning can grab a reader’s attention from the first line. Rather than using a bunch of “telling” exposition, a story that begins in medias res opens with dramatic action and ultimately “shows” rather than “tells”—a technique that appeals more to the reader.

    ·   Next consider issues of narration or how you tell your story. What point of view have you chosen? Is it the best for the piece? First person narratives offer an intimate look from one character’s view into the story while third person omniscience allows multiple points of view in a story. Which works best for your piece? Other narration issues include verb tense and voice. Present tense lends a sense of immediacy to the story while past tense is far more common and comfortable for the reader (especially in a longer piece). You can experiment with different points of view or verb tenses or voices. Rewrite just the first page or two to help you decide how to best tell your story. Once you decide, make sure these elements are consistent throughout your piece.

    ·   Work on characters next. What is your protagonist’s motivation? Arc? Explore these to make sure you’re creating a compelling main character. Take other important characters one at a time to make sure they are as developed as necessary.

    ·   Examine your plot. If making a traditional list or outline doesn’t appeal to you, try some mapping techniques or write out your scenes on note cards. Remember that conflict drives a good plot forward. Knowing what your character wants and then creating conflict against that desire will push a good story forward and help you to focus on what is essential in the telling of your story.

    ·   Think about your setting next. Have you created a clear world the reader can step into?

    ·   Tackle description and dialogue. Authenticity is important at this stage of revision.  Does your dialogue ring true? Is your description interesting? Try to intermingle narration with dialogue, interlacing effective description with dialogue and action that move the story forward.

    ·   Consider your theme. Write your theme on a separate note card. Then view your work critically for how well you’ve conveyed it.

    ·   Plant foreshadowing into earlier sections of your story. These moments will work to hint at themes throughout your piece.

    ·   Examine word choices.  Now you can read to replace weak verbs with strong ones and generally strive for more exacting word choices.


    Revision strategies for poetry:

    ·   Ferret out the abstractions. When you find abstract words in your poems, revise lines with the following phrase in mind: “What I meant to say here is __________________.” Then rewrite your lines eliminating abstract words in favor of more concrete descriptions.

    ·   Eliminate cliché.  Your job as a poet is to provide fresh comparisons, not drag out dead ones. Ask yourself if you’ve heard your descriptions before.  If so, rewrite.

    ·   Reread your poem to reveal its natural form. What patterns naturally exist in the piece? What parts don’t conform? Check syllables and syntax in your examination of form. Sometimes a form naturally takes place; at other times you’ll need to nudge a piece to find its best form.

    ·   Seek out the music in your poem. Poetry is a sound-based art. Use your ear to listen for the unique music of the piece and to enhance its song. Alliteration, consonance, assonance, and internal rhyme (as well as end rhyme, if you like that sort of thing) all help to create music in your poetry.

    ·   Utilize strong verbs. Eliminate the weak ones not used with great purpose, especially the “being” verbs. Instead of a general, everyday verb like “walk,” opt for a more specific and potent verb like “skulk” or “careen” or “glide.”

    ·   Inspect line breaks. Ask yourself why you break lines as you do.  Look for opportunities to surprise your reader, if possible, remembering that readers pay more attention to the words that begin and end lines.

    ·   Cut liberally. Poetry is synonymous with being concise.  Condense your words. Compress your ideas. Curtail those explanations, those adverbs, those frilly adjectives and especially those prepositions and unnecessary articles.  Think bare bones.  Think naked.

    Is all this difficult work?  Yes.  But I think it’s worth it.

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    Why I Like Limits

    Three of the four editors for 3ER are MFA candidates in Fiction at Columbia College Chicago. Well, now it’s called “Creative Writing-Fiction,” as a merger with Non-Fiction and Poetry just happened (which is super exciting, in my opinion). Columbia has a pedagogy all its own, and while I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of it, just know this–we don’t have a lot of limits. In fact, we are asked to constantly think of new things during the word games we play in every fiction class. This is great, but sometimes I like limits.

    Let me explain.

    So, think of 3ER itself. We have word limits, but we also have another basic requirement limit: you MUST include the three elements in your poetry or fiction, and you MUST include at least one element in your art submission.

    But is this stifling?


    It offers you a different way to approach work. How will you work element A into a piece that you want to focus only on elements B and C? And, when you do, how does it change the piece? How does it make it better? How can you move past the cliches associated with certain elements, or how can you use them and make them new? (For example, there are some great ways in which “tandem bicycle” moved past its ties to love and nostalgia.)

    I think limits are great. If you look at many journals out there, they have requirements. 3ER doesn’t really work well with preexisting work. Instead, we challenge our contributors to spend a few months creating their pieces using the elements we have provided for them. We are excited to see what they come up with and how each piece is remarkably different and beautiful and poignant on its own.

    So, embrace limits at times. You have the opportunity to write without them whenever you want, but when you see a limit, and when you think it can’t be done, take this challenge:

    Do it.

    You don’t know what it will bring you. It just might end up being your favorite piece you’ve created yet.

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    Guest Blog – It’s Visceral

    What is my writing process? It’s pretty organic, visceral, something I simply do, and I haven’t given much thought as to how I do it. But since you ask, and since I wrote something for this journal, I think I’ll have a look…

    What do I need to start? Two things: a feeling and a spark. Not necessarily in that order. For “Tandem Bicycle” the spark came first. I read about 3Elements and it seemed interesting. I started rolling the elements around in my head, contemplating how they might fit together, pushing them around like puzzle pieces. “Ache” started to trip some feeling, to generate some sensation in my chest, my gut, a tension, not quite a pain… so that’s what I wrote. “Ache. That’s not exactly right but I don’t know how else to name it. An odd pain in my chest, or maybe in my gut, it’s hard to tell.”

    I write what I experience. I feel, sometimes I see, and then I write.

    I feel, and then I follow the footsteps of who I would be if that feeling were really mine. I slip into their experiences and look out from their eyes. I feel what it feels like to be inside their body, to wear their clothes, to have their haircut, and their eye color. I let their thoughts blossom in my head. I touch their furniture, look about their (my) room and out their (my) windows, in their (my) fridge. I think, “If this is my room, my house, who would I be?” “If this is my life, if this is how I feel, then who am I, what would I do, what would I say?”

    I find the sliver of myself that is like them and let the rest of me fall away. I let the piece that is like them expand and fill my space, my head, my body. Especially my body. I feel, then I write what would make me feel that way. The feeling changes, flows, evolves, uncovers deeper layers and unexpected surprises and that’s where the story goes. I feel the ache, I’m standing in my bedroom looking out the apartment window… it’s open and I see the long soft white curtains twitch, see the apartment building across the street, industrial and brick, a little wedge of barely blue sky trapped between it and its neighbor. I look around the room, the walls are almond, the closet’s open, the bed is neatly made, white sheets, the bedspread is mustard yellow. I feel the ache, and think about how you’ve left and I feel the ache and the feeling pulls my head my eyes down and at the foot of the bed in front of my feet I see…

    a pile of laundry.

    Hmm. Ok. A pile of laundry. Alrighty then, that’s what I write.

    When the feeling stalls, I reread from the top, or from the start of a sequence, looking for the thread of where the feeling goes. It’s like tracking deer in the woods… sometimes I miss the turn. The feeling is like hoof prints buried beneath the leaves and I have to look for signs of where they went. A broken branch, a nipped-off bud, a disruption in the pattern of the forest floor, a clue to tell me where the next print is. Sometimes I have to peel back the leaves to see the print impressed on the damp earth below.

    Ah. There you see the process and the images and the feelings and the words that it creates. The spark, the feeling, the “it’s like…” that creates the flow.

    When I reread, if the flow stalls, sometimes that means I need to fix something. Something there interrupts the flow, and once that’s repaired, I can follow the story forward. Sometimes it means I’ve jumped ahead and I need to put some white space between the different parts and find what happened in between.

    And sometimes the process spits me out… poink! Suddenly my head’s my own and I’m done for a while. A few hours, a day, maybe two, and I can pick up the trail again. I’ll come back, reread, sink in, feel for the flow. I merge back into the character, write what I feel, what I see, what my truth is as I am them.

    My way of writing is organic, visceral, kinetic…but this post is intended to be read by writers, used by writers, maybe illuminate a technique that another writer might try on. (See? Even that’s kinetic.)

    How do I explain how I subsume into my character, how my character becomes me? Perhaps the key is in the questions…

    How do I feel, emotionally? Where is the tension in my body? What’s tight, what hurts, what’s numb? What can’t I feel at all? What am I wearing? What does my clothing feel like against my body? How do my shoes fit—do they pinch? What does the air feel like on my skin? What do I feel if I run my fingers through my hair, or down my cheek, or up my arm? Take a breath, what do I smell? What temperature is it? What can I touch from where I am? What do I feel if I drag my fingers over it? What can I hear? And if I listen closely, what can I hear behind or under that? If I look up, what do I see?

    If I feel this way, if this is my life, what does it say about me? Who does that make me?

    Emotion and a starting spark.

    Feel, then see, then write. At least that’s how it works for me.

    Zee Martin is an engineer and artist, an award-winning dancer and teacher, a marksman and a small-time rancher. She lives with her husband and a whole lot of critters on a small farm on a dirt road near a very tiny town in the Missouri Ozarks. And sometimes, she likes to write. Her story “Tandem” will appear in issue one of 3Elements Review.

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