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.