The Art of Revision

By Sherryl Clark

Writers seem to fall into two categories: those who hate the first draft and love the slow, detailed pleasure of revision, and those who love the rush and excitement of the first draft and hate revision.

Many of us balk at revision. I’ve heard writers vow that their work comes out so well the first time, they never need more than one draft. None of those writers are published, by the way!

If you’re serious about getting your work noticed by editors, the revision stage is where your work will truly reach its full potential. The problem is how can you approach rewriting so that it becomes constructive, enhancing, and problem-solving? It’s part of your craft, so it needs a coherent strategy.

  1. You have to read critically that means read other published work. Books and stories in your genre or form, books outside your genre, any book that might give you a great or bad example of writing. Any book that does a good job of something you struggle with (at the moment, I’m working on deepening character how to do this with a character who has a very hard outer shell). Read to see how accomplished writers work with words, with character, with plot, with theme. Stop reading just to put yourself to sleep at night and start reading as a writer. Learn from it. If you can’t see what makes a great novel great, you’d better study it some more.
  2. Find out how you can put distance between you and your writing. That might mean putting your story or novel away for a week, a month, a year, until you can look at it with a critical eye, and not fall in love with your own words again. It might mean reading it out loud to yourself, or onto a tape. It might mean psyching yourself into another mental realm and pretending that the novel wasn’t written by you. Whatever works for you, whatever leads to you being able to cut ruthlessly or see where there are gaps and shallowness.
  3. Learn to separate the stages of revision. Understand that there is structural revision (the big picture stuff) and revision on a paragraph by paragraph basis. And then there is line editing, on a word by word basis. That’s where most people trim and tighten. Understand the difference between re-visioning and revision. Re-visioning means re-imagining your novel, seeing it in a new light, seeing other possibilities for it. That’s where distance helps. It’s also where mental space helps it’s almost a re-dreaming of your story, and that’s not going to happen in half an hour, crammed into the end of the day.
  4. Acknowledge to yourself, no matter how hard it might be, that fiddling around the edges and changing a few things here and there is not rewriting. True rewriting is retyping the whole thing from scratch, writing it as a new piece of work. You may refer to the original– some people don’t even do that.
  5. Only give it to a trusted reader or critique partner/group when you are sure you have done everything you possibly can, or are capable of at this point, to make it the best you can. Don’t ask people to critique something that you know you can still work on, or something that is OK for plot but you haven’t done the line editing. Why should they spend their time on your punctuation and grammar? Think about what you want or need from the critique. If you want to know if the voice works, say so. Ditto for plot, character, pacing. Make the best use of your critique person’s time and energy.
  6. Take your critiques seriously. Don’t say, “Oh, they weren’t good readers, they just didn’t get what I was trying to do.” If that’s the case, that’s your fault, not theirs. Take heed of all comments, consider them seriously. Some may be of no use to you. Most should at least raise the question of “Did I do that well enough? Why has that comment been made?” Don’t take any critique personally. It’s not about you, it’s about the story.
  7. If you have revised and revised and revised, learn to see when enough is enough. Do you want to revise again because you’re too scared to send it out? Or do you really think another revision will help? If you are up to Draft 15, ask yourself what you are doing. Have you really done 15 drafts, or 15 “picking at the edges”? If the story isn’t working after 15 drafts, you need to work out why not. You may have to abandon the story. It has still taught you an immense amount along the way. If you have to, let it go. Don’t hang everything on one manuscript. Write more. That’s what writers do.
  8. If you revised a bit, sent it out, and have 20 rejections, you have to make a decision. It’s probably not publishable in its present state, but maybe only 100 rejections will convince you how honest are you being about it? Is it fabulous? Is it a manuscript that sings? Or is it competent? Does it need another big revision? Suck it up. Do it. Or start something new. Note: If it’s a story that just won’t leave you alone, you probably need to keep working on it. Otherwise it’ll give you nightmares, interrupt your daydreams, and intrude on your other writing.
  9. How do you know when your revision is finished? Obviously, when it is accepted for publication (but then your editor will want more revisions!). Often you will get to the stage where you know in your heart it is the best you can possibly make it. If you’re still not sure, put it away again for at least a month, then re-read it. How does it make you feel? Are there still bits that niggle at you, however much you try to deny it? Or do you feel totally happy with it?

Revising is a large part of the craft of writing. If you tackle it the same way you tackle learning to write better, you’ll take a huge step towards your publishing dream.

Sherryl Clark is a writer of children’s and adult fiction and poetry. She teaches professional writing at Victoria University in Melbourne. Sherryl Clark has a website.