A note: The following is what works for me. No doubt it won’t work for everyone. It’s a process that I’ve come to slowly (am still coming to?) over several six or seven years. During that time I’ve tried to understand and accept (most of) my writing-related habits, both good and bad, and that’s been key to developing a routine revision process. And it’s also been key to trusting my instincts when it comes to revisions — which is, I think, half the battle. I wish someone had given me the following advice five years ago, but at the same time, I think that the only way to get yourself a revision process is to do it. Write stuff, and then revise it. Again and again. There are probably a million ways to go about revising a piece of writing, and it’s a matter of finding what works for you. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, here’s how I do it, but I don’t mean this to be taken as some sort of panacea of revision processes. It’s just one person’s routine.
1. Finish the piece of writing. I don’t mean to sound flippant; I’m absolutely serious. One great impediment to my attempts at revision in the past (and still, sometimes, when I lapse into old habits) was over-editing while I was writing. I’m one of those writers who likes to tweak, endlessly. Sometimes I never reached the end of an essay or story, because I got so caught up in perfecting what I had already written that I lost momentum. I think there are a lot of writers who are perfectionists, who agonize over every word, sentence, character behavior, etc., and I think it’s an easy trap to fall into. But seriously? Don’t. Just write through to the end. Force yourself. Let your misspellings go uncorrected, let strange plot twists you aren’t quite sure about stay in the document, let some facts go unresearched. Leave holes. Just power through. Do not go back and reread from the beginning of the piece over and over again. I know it’s easier said than done, but it makes revising a lot easier. (For me, a big help in getting beyond my over-edited, obsessed-with-perfection writing process was doing NaNoWriMo. I highly recommend it as an exercise in letting go and freeing up your inner, less-perfect, just-get-through-the-first-draft writer.)
2. Put your piece of writing away. Save a copy, print it out, or whatever measures you usually take to safeguard a manuscript. Then put it away, forget about it, don’t open the file. In my experience, the longer you can stay away, the better. For me ‑– and this is just me – I need a minimum of a month away from something I’ve just completed. Two-to-four months works better than one month, if you have that luxury. (I am assuming that what you’ve written isn’t some freelance project that has a short deadline, and likely therefore an editor to guide revisions.) I do this with short stories and essays – I give myself a certain amount of time to write a first draft, say a month, then I close the file and don’t return until some time has passed. I can see that this might be a more challenging thing to do if you’re writing something longer, say, a novel or memoir. But potentially it could work, by writing a chapter, putting it away, and then moving on to the next while the first chapter “rests.” I read somewhere (maybe in On Writing?) that Stephen King writes his novels straight through in a relatively short period of time, working very long days, and then puts the manuscript in a drawer for as long as a year before attempting any revisions or further drafts. So I suppose that’s another way of handling revisions to a longer work.
When you’ve been away long enough that the words feel foreign to you, or maybe you’ve forgotten some aspects of what you’ve written, then it’s time to get it back out again. I have actually been putting myself on a revision schedule so that I don’t put off doing the work indefinitely. (Yes, I hate revising so much that I would avoid doing it forever.) For example, I wrote a short story in January, and I told myself I’d begin revising it in May. It wasn’t an arbitrary deadline — I had planned to accomplish other writing goals in the intervening months and so May was the next opening on my writing calendar. I had definitely forgotten a lot of things about that story when I began revising, so I was feeling clear-headed and unattached to the writing. My only goal for the month of May was to revise that story and send it out.
3. Don’t touch the computer….yet. Print out your piece of writing and grab a red pen. On my first re-reading of the work, I mark things that sound awkward to me as I read. I am looking for phrases that are worded oddly, anything that makes me stumble, and anything I can cut: Redundancies, unnecessary explanatory sentences, unnecessary dialogue, over-written language (you know, that whole “kill your darlings” bit). Maybe it’s the former newspaper editor in me, but I try to be ruthless at this point, particularly with the cutting. There’s no harm done, because you’re using a red pen on a printed version of your piece which of course you’ve got another copy of elsewhere, so you can always change your mind about what to cut/change later. But because you’ve been away from the work for a while, your first pass is your “first impression” of the piece. I tend to notice more in the first reading than in subsequent ones, and so the feeling that some wording is not quite right or that a sentence could be cut is usually an accurate one, and it’s a feeling you can lose touch with quickly as you get more involved with the piece again. It’s at this point that I also write notes and questions to myself in the margins. Include more X here? Consider adding a graph here? Need more explanation of this? That kind of thing. I suppose I should point out that I am not actually making any final decisions about cutting, changing or adding to the piece. I’m just getting my initial impressions out on the paper. This phase of the revision is not necessarily fast. I sometimes spend as much as a week marking up a short story with my handy red pen. When you think you’ve finished, put the pen down and walk away. Take at least a day off. Go for a run or do some yoga, or whatever it is you do that helps your mind rest. Let your subconscious ponder your questions while you’re asleep.
Coming soon: Part II, the hard part.