How to revise (I think), part II: the hard part

Part I in this series is here. As you may remember, we left off with a printed copy of the piece, covered in red ink indicating possible revisions. Next:

4. Back to work and back to the computer. Save a new copy of the piece of writing. I’ve got my paper copy covered in red ink, and I’ve got my brand new electronic copy, ready for the revisions. This is the hard part! I now go over every red mark on my paper copy and make the related changes on my electronic copy. There’s something about seeing potential revisions on a hard copy next to my computer that helps me as I proceed to re-read and re-analyze. Of course,  I now have to make decisions (ack!): Do I really want to cut that sentence, or add a graph there? How can I reword X?
I go through each red mark, one by one. Some days I only get through a page or two, some days it’s more than that. I might end up cutting extraneous wording, rewriting a sentence and adding a graph one day, and simply considering the consequences of cutting a word or two another day. It takes a long time, and it’s not easy. Sometimes I still have trouble making a decision and will often change the color of text I’m considering adding or deleting to remind myself of the option while I’m going through the piece and working on other changes. (I recently realized that I most often end up going with my original, gut instinct, which is why I value that first impression so much.) I sometimes stop working on the computer and return to my hard copy. I find that when I’m having trouble rewriting a line or paragraph, it can be helpful to try writing it longhand. (I suspect this is because the computer makes for laziness – I tend to try to move words around, to cut and paste rather than rewrite. Picking up a pen forces me to start over.)

5. Be ruthless and detached. Notice everything. Question everything. Act like you didn’t write the piece in question and you’re reading it in a magazine (but in the most critical way possible, like you have to discuss it in a class, or give a presentation on it). I can’t provide steps for this part, only some nebulous ideas about how I proceed:

-I operate on a “less is more” philosophy, which is why cutting is such an important part of my revisions. If there’s a sentence, or a paragraph, or even a word in my piece that isn’t serving a purpose, I try to cut it. You might ask yourself why it’s there, or what purpose it could serve, but in the end, if you can’t come up with a good reason for it, it needs to go.

-When I said that I’m on the lookout for anything that makes me stumble, I mean anything. Sometimes I might not know what the solution is, but a word, punctuation, paragraph, or sentence that makes me stop in a story or essay is a problem. Ditto for problems with logic and timing (she took her watch off in the last scene and now she’s wearing a watch again?), anachronisms, flaws in research/factual errors, etc. They’re all bumps in the road. One way to find speedbumps is to read your piece out loud and/or have someone else read it to you. Any point in your writing that causes you to have to re-read the wording, or to stop, or get confused – you have a problem that needs fixing.

-A lot of the changes I’m talking about making here are grammatical, or structural, or just general aesthetics. But I tend to think there’s a relationship between those things and a well-written, smoothly flowing story or essay with a coherent plot. I think structural and grammatical problems are often signs of other issues in plot, character development, timing, organization, etc. For me, when I’m struggling with one of those larger, more abstract problems (even if I don’t realize I am) my confusion sometimes comes out in poor writing, awkward wording, or other speedbumps. They end up being clues to larger problems that I need to fix.

-Consider consistency. On occasion I’ve found the tone/voice I started with in a piece isn’t the one I ended up with, and that’s something I address in a revision — even if I’m aware of it while I’m writing the first draft.

-On a somewhat related note, I remember reading in Ron Carlson Writes A Story that as he was revising his story, he did one pass on the piece to make it colder. As in, the story took place on a cold winter night, and he didn’t feel that he’d made the reader feel the temperature enough with his descriptions. He felt it was important to the mood of the story, and so he rewrote to amp up the wintry feeling. That kind of blew my mind – I’d never considered making that kind of single-minded, precise revision. Now I do. For example, I recently wrote a short story that had a lot in it about birds, and as I revise it, I’m not only considering whether the detail on the birds is enough, and factually correct, but also whether the language in certain parts of the story is birdy enough. Can I amplify the feeling of flight, for example, with my word choice? So, I guess to summarize, consider the themes, motifs, settings and mood of your story/essay and whether any aspects of those need to be punched up or toned down.

6. Print it out again. When I’ve gone through all of my red marks and cut, added, changed, re-written, etc. and I think I’m through with all of my intended revisions, I usually print out my piece again. I’m not as critical of a reader on this pass; I just try to read for enjoyment and … smoothness. I try to put myself in the place of a reader who has never seen the piece, and read from their perspective. I’m looking for additional changes I might need to make, of course, but I’m assuming that most of these changes are minor, perhaps slight wording or punctuation alterations that make the piece more readable. I also try think as if I had never read the piece before, and if there would be anything else I’d want to know. (Occasionally, my brain makes a leap in a story that doesn’t get conveyed on paper, and I want to make sure that anyone else who might read it is going to make that same leap.)

7. Decide what “done” means to you. I have written on this blog before about how to know whether a piece of writing is “done” or not. I certainly don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but after a thorough revision, I tend feel either:

1) That I’ve done the best I can and the story/essay is as close as I can get it to what I wanted it to be; it’s time to send it out. I don’t mean that it’s perfect, but I feel good/confident about it, and I can’t imagine another thing I could do to it right now, based on the hopes/plans I had for it from the outset. Finished! Time to move on.

2) That I’ve done all I can do to revise the piece right now, but I’ve got a nagging feeling that something still isn’t quite right. The problem is that I don’t know what the something is. I might know at what point in the story/essay the problem occurs, but I don’t know what to do about it. This is when I sigh, feel depressed, put the piece away again and hope that time away provides me with some insight when I start the revision process over again. (Alternatively, if I had a writers’ group/writing buddy that I turned to, I might seek their help at this point, and that might allow me to avoid another forced break.)

As I’ve said, revision is a nebulous process, and it’s a hard one to provide directions for. If these steps feel less than concrete, well, that’s because the process is a slippery one, and a personal one. Only you as the writer know what you wanted to create and whether your piece has reached that potential or not. And every writer is bringing every piece of writing knowledge they’ve ever gotten to the table for the revision process and that makes for different kinds of thinking for everyone. The more I revise my work, the more I see that’s it’s all about your gut instincts, and developing enough experience at revising to make those gut responses stronger and easier to act on. I’ve come to understand that my instincts are even more important in the revision phase than in the creation phase. It sure seems like it should be the other way around.

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9 thoughts on “How to revise (I think), part II: the hard part

  1. Love this, especially as it is exactly where I am. One thing that has helped me unbelievably with revisions is getting critiques from beta readers. That helps me see flaws, places where I am not being clear or not appealing to emotions. My best critiques have been from people who don’t know me IRL: other writers off my online writing forum.

    Do you use readers at all?

    • I am actually not using any readers for the moment and after a long couple of years of floundering, it’s now working for me – I’ve learned a lot about my own revision process. I do intend to get some readers lined up in some form or other sometime soon….But I had workshop/critique overload after getting my MFA, and decided to go it alone for a while. I think readers can be incredibly helpful and that they can speed the process quite a bit. On the flip side, sometimes you can end up with too much feedback that is hard to synthesize.

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  3. I really enjoyed this, and it makes a nice whole with the first part–one writer’s primer that we all can learn from as we develop our own method. One thing that has helped me greatly in revising cnf is outlining AFTER a piece is done. It helps me to see connections, redundancies, structural issues.

    • I’ve never tried the reverse outlining, though I can see how it might be helpful, particularly with nonfiction, where events happened the way they happened and so they can been sketched out in that way. I did use outlines to some good when I was working on my travel memoir in grad school, but in general I have found they make my writing somewhat stilted and too careful. I end up writing to the outline and not to my instincts for a good story.

  4. The Ron Carlson book you pointed out really transformed my act of sitting down and writing in terms of my approach, my thought processes. I can’t thank you enough for that!

    I’m not sure about leaving my WIP in a drawer for six months, though. It’s still very ‘alive’ for me and as I finally approach the end of this draft, I really quite passionately that I want to go straight back and sort it out! I have a very long list of items that I feel I need to rework get right before I put it in front of any readers.

    • That Ron Carlson book really transformed my process too. I’m actually thinking I need to read it again, especially since I’ve been off my routine quite a bit recently.
      I’m sure the “put it away” part of revision isn’t for everyone, but you might try experimenting with it, even just on a section of your ms. Make a list of the things you want to rework now; put it away for a while (maybe not 6 months, but maybe a month or two) and see how the time away transforms your view of a)the piece of writing, and b)the list of things you wanted to rework — my guess is that your opinion of what needs to change will have changed.

  5. It took me a while to learn to appreciate and love revising. Now it’s what I write the first draft towards and it gives me such permission. Nothing, nothing, nothing is permanent until the darn thing is published.

    But I do know I’m getting close to being done when I start to hate the piece; it means I’m truly ready to cast it to its fate because I just don’t care anymore. I’m ready for the next new thing.

    Great two-parter piece on revision, btw,

    • Lakin, You’re so right about starting to hate the piece! I’ve been struggling to finish revising the story I submitted to the conference this summer, and I really am starting to hate it — thank you for reminding me that starting to hate it is a good thing! I’m not sure I’ll ever come to love revising, but it does get easier.

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