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.

Write Tight — or It’s Gonna Cost You!

By Diane Sonntag

Our good friends at Strunk and White are always advising us to do away with those nasty adjectives and adverbs that clutter up our writing. This has always been a tough one for me. As someone who really likes to talk — and unfortunately, as someone who writes like I talk — removing those adjectives and adverbs has been a real challenge for me.

Personally, I have always rather enjoyed those cute little adjectives and those good old adverbs. They make my dry, boring sentences more pleasant, interesting, and fun for the intelligent, yet discerning reader. Cutting them out seems like cruel and unusual punishment. For a good long time, I just plain refused to leave out my favorite descriptive words.

See what I mean? Adjectives and adverbs are bad? What blasphemy!

Several years ago, I had to consult an attorney regarding a legal matter. In one of our first conversations, I explained the situation in great detail. I explained that I had been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this rotten person. I described how I had been naïve and trusting and this terrible, awful individual had seen that, and had milked it for every last blessed cent I was worth. I told him how this other party was just the most vindictive, cold, and heartless person to have ever walked the face of this great earth. (OK, I admit it — I might be ever so slightly dramatic!) The attorney just nodded and smiled throughout my monologue. He seemed perfectly content to sit and listen to me talk all day long. But he did glance at his watch every so often and smirk.

Three weeks later, I received an invoice for his services. And then I knew what the smirk was about. That one conversation had cost me nearly $500! At his rates, I was paying like $28 per adjective! I was both shocked and appalled at this bill, and I knew that something had to change. I simply couldn’t afford to carry on like I had during our next conversation. I had to be brief, or it would cost me dearly.

In an effort to cut down on my legal fees, I began to plan out what I was going to say to the attorney. I would write down what I needed to tell him, and then look for ways to pare it down. I reminded myself that unnecessary words were like money down the drain, and I took them out. I couldn’t afford to use two or three words when one would suffice.

No longer had I been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this no good so-and-so. Now I was simply “treated unfairly.” See how many words that saved? And in legal terms, that small cut also saved me like ten bucks!

Overnight, this other party changed from being “a vindictive, cold, and heartless beast who would sell his own poor mother for two nickels” to simply “an opportunist.” Did this person actually change their character? Certainly not! But when I changed how I described that person, it cut down on the words I used, which, in turn, saved me another $32.50. (But let’s be honest here — it did cut down on the drama of the story as well!)

Every time I prepared something to say to my attorney, I pared it down until it was as short as it could possibly be and still get my meaning across. And then one day, I was typing a query letter and I realized that unconsciously, I was doing the same thing. I was taking out all unnecessary words. The bank robber didn’t run quickly. He sprinted. The baby didn’t cry loudly. She howled.

I was condensing my writing down to the bare essentials. I was making it as tight as it could be. And yes, I was sacrificing my beloved adverbs and adjectives. It hurt the Drama Queen in me, but it did make my writing better.

And all of this because I wanted to save a few bucks. But when you think about it, being too wordy had probably been costing me money all along, and I was too dense to realize it. Editors were rejecting my work because it was too cluttered with adjectives, adverbs, and clichés. My writing wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I was paying for it without even knowing it.

My legal situation resolved itself a long time ago, but it certainly wasn’t a cheap fix. I paid a significant amount in legal fees. But when I think about what I learned about writing tightly and I realize how much more I’ve been published, I think I just about broke even.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the “cold, heartless, vindictive beast” got what he had coming to him.

 

Diane Sonntag is an elementary school teacher and freelance writer. Her work has been published in Woman’s World, MOMsense, and Chicken Soup for the Girl’s Soul. She hopes to remain on the right side of the law from now on.