The Writer's Writing Guide: Revision

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Writing is a process which, at its simplest level, breaks down into three discrete stages: the writing of the first draft, the writing of the revision drafts, and the sending out of the story for publication. This chapter breaks down the first two stages into more detail.

The First Draft

When I first took writing classes, I heard about something called "First Draft," but thought it couldn't possibly apply to me. After all, before I showed a story to anyone, I worked and reworked it. I then read my story over several times. So by the time I gave my story to a teacher, I felt satisfied it was fully realized — and therefore, publishable. I quickly discovered that much more work remained, only I wasn't yet able to see it. What I thought were complete stories were in fact only first drafts.

Every writer defines First Draft a little differently. This is how I define it: A first draft is the first time you believe the story is completely done. When you're first beginning to write, you tend to think a story is completely done long before it actually is. This is not only because you're learning how to read your own work critically and haven't yet mastered doing so, but because you're so eager to move on that you stop prematurely. The latter may occur simply because you're fed up with working on it (the "God, I'm just sick of this thing!" approach to finishing). Or perhaps you've run out of time (the "Yipes! Tomorrow's the deadline!" approach). Or maybe you can't think of any other way to get your characters out of their predicament (the "Screw it, I can get away with it" approach). Thus you think the story is done because you want it to be done, not because all your critical reading skills have told you it truly is done. This overly eager approach to finishing is about as silly as saying, "Because I'm hungry, the cake is ready to eat," rather than "I may be hungry, but I'd better wait until the cake is done baking before I cut myself a slice."

Do more experienced writers have to overcome the same barriers to thorough writing? Occasionally, but the real barrier more experienced writers have is the barrier of delusion. You work hard and you work hard and you work hard, and then you think, "There! It's brilliant! Perfect! Wait till they see this at The New Yorker!" But experienced writers also have learned — most likely through some embarrassing episode when they submitted something too soon to a previously friendly editor and received back a rejection letter with something like, "Expected more of you," scrawled on the bottom — that delusion is part of the writing process. All first drafts are written with hope, with the writer caught up in the sweep of events and characters, mesmerized by the magic parallel universe he is creating, dazzled by the thought that all readers, the moment their eyes light on those first lines, will be struck by some literary Cupid's arrow, and think this story is the most amazing masterpiece ever written. This is okay — in fact, even preferable to thinking about reality as you write. It is just as when we first fall in love with a person, and the intoxicating effects of ardor whisk us past common sense and fear and take us directly to intimacy. I see intoxication as necessary; if we didn't have it, we'd be too cautious. How can we write about ideas and emotions that in our regular life would make us cringe? We can't. Intoxication is part of the process of writing. The trick is to realize, when you emerge from that first whirlwind date with your story, that you've written only a first draft. It may be a masterpiece in the making, but alas, that's all it is.

So the most important thing about first drafts is accepting they exist. And the next most important thing is accepting that you need to revise them.

The Wonderful World Of Revision

This is the stage almost all apprentice writers dread, and hope they are too clever to need. They see the need for revision as a weakness, a sign of creative failure, which is why they might get very annoyed with themselves when they realize they need to rewrite a story — or why they might get incensed with anyone who dares suggest that they ought to do so. This is despite having heard the saying, "The art of writing is rewriting." Some apprentice writers even want to think that what they write the first time is somehow the pure them and that to fix it in any way would be a defilement, a lie. It is beneath them. It is against everything they believe in.

The truth is that revision is scary. You wonder how you'll know what to do. How do I know whether to change the story from first person to third? How do I know whether to have Snow White tell the story, or the evil Queen, or the talking mirror — or all seven of the dwarves, each in his own way? And even if you could fine-tune your inner compass so it precisely pointed out the perfect answer, you wonder how you'll overcome your inner resistances. You struggle with, "But, it really happened that way!" And with, "But I love that paragraph!" And with "But my friends thought it was great!" And with "I know a paragraph about purple waves of grain has nothing to do with Snow White, but I worked on that paragraph for one whole week, and I'm not going to cut it!" And with, "But revision is so nit-picky!" And with, "I've worked on this story long enough, and if it's not good enough the way it is, then I just don't care." Such obstinate thought patterns come out of nowhere and paralyze us.

The hardest part of writing is dealing with our emotional issues. And revision is one of the big places where that fact is particularly important. The only thing hard about revision is our own resistance to it.

Remember — writing is a process.

Tips to Overcoming Resistance to Revision

1. Do not think about revision when you are writing your first draft. My approach is to write my first draft as fast as I can so I don't get bogged down in details like, "Is this metaphor working?" and "This voice is inconsistent." Probably the best thing you can do for yourself with revision is keep it in its place — don't leap into it while you're still on the first draft. Your first draft is the time for intoxication, for massive exploration, for messy metaphors and cul-de-sac digressions. It's your first date with the material, your opportunity to get to know what you're writing about, before you need to think about things like voice consistency. Some people are able to write a first draft in one day and begin revising the next. Others take a month or two for the first draft and can't face revising it for another year. In general, it does help to wait a little while before trying to revise. Then, it becomes easier to be critical, because you're not as attached to the work — and because, during the intervening time, you've become a better writer.

2. Read your work out loud. Pay close attention to your state of mind as you read, so that you can notice if you get confused, or bored, or — and here's a great tip-off — sleepy. If you drift, or your eyes glaze over — even for one word — your reader will experience the same reaction. One rule I have for myself is that if I hit some detail that I'd forgotten was there — and if it clearly is unnecessary to the story — I cut it. I also listen as I read. This way I can catch accidental rhymes and repeated words. But reading aloud works only if you do it over and over. If you change a word, read the whole thing out loud again. It sounds obsessive and time-consuming — but it works.

3. Develop and make use of trusted readers — people whose critical opinions you value. This can take time, since you'll have to try out a lot of people before you find a core few who are honest and articulate with you. You don't want people who just say, "I like it," or "I don't like it." You don't want friends who think it's great simply because you wrote it. Trusted readers are not there to be fans. They are there to be critical, to push us further than we have already gone so that the story gets better and better. Look for people who give you substantial reasons for why they think something works, and why they think it doesn't. Who read closely and carefully, and who care about your development as a writer at least as much as they care about this one piece. This doesn't mean they all have to be writers themselves. One of my best readers is a man who reads little besides Shakespeare and the Bible, and who writes nothing except office memos. But he reads my work very closely, and gives me feedback that is full of common sense. For instance, while my short stories were still in draft form and he was reading through them, he said, "Rachel, I can't see any of your characters." We then noticed that I had neglected to give physical descriptions for almost every character, which was something my other trusted readers hadn't cared about but which I realized would improve the stories. For your trusted readers, turn to friends of all ages, to people you meet in English classes, and to classmates from writing classes. Over time assemble a whole crew. Your main criteria should be that they love to read, care about your growth as a writer, and give you legitimate, articulate reasons for their qualms. You don't have to change everything they say, but you should understand their reasons thoroughly, and seriously consider acting on them.

4. See the text as fluid. A lot of our resistance to revision comes from some weird feeling that once we've put the words down, they're sacred. It's ridiculous, but we do it again and again — we begin a story with a sense of openness, the blank page some uncharted ocean which is ours to frolic in. But as soon as we put anything on the page, we lose that sense of freedom and spaciousness and lock ourselves in, as though the ocean has gone completely dry and in its place our words have solidified into stone. But the words are not stone. The words are fluid. Your entire story is fluid. By that I mean infinitely malleable, variable, fixable. This applies from the level of the word to the level of character to the level of the plot itself. I think we leap from ocean to stone because we fear we won't be able to come up with a better solution. In my novel, which I spent two years revising, I basically lost control of the storyline fairly early in the book, and spent the next 700 pages following all kinds of subplots and characters which, I eventually realized, were not necessary, and prevented me from figuring out the plot and characters I really needed to focus on. I was afraid to cut anything, and so I didn't. Instead, I let the novel sit like Mt. Everest on my desk: formidable, insurmountable. Eventually I realized I needed to see the text as fluid if I ever wanted to finish it. I needed to address every element of the piece — not just plot and character, but also structure and tone and length and a zillion other things. I had previously seen this as impossible: they were my words; I had worked at putting them there; my friends liked them; what if I lost something vital? But at this point, exhausted with (and disgusted by) my own resistance, I tried to counter this attitude with egolessness. So what if they were my words, right? They weren't working, so out they should go.

Still, it was a novel, the first novel I had written as an adult, and I found that I needed some help in making this attitudinal shift. Then I remembered that I had once read about a writer who threw into a dresser drawer everything he scissored out of his early drafts. I decided to follow this example and see if it helped, though I decided to use not a drawer, but a computer file. I called it CUTS, and whenever I hit a section of writing that I had to sever from the novel, I simply tossed it in there. This helped me get over my squeamishness about divorcing myself from my words, because I knew that if I wanted to reuse those sections, they'd already be there. This, in turn, reinforced my new ability to see my text as fluid. I could cut, I could retrieve, I could add, I could cut what I added. The novel melted from solid rock back to a liquid form, one that I could pour and repour into new shapes and sizes. I felt freer on the page than I'd ever felt before. I now keep a CUTS file for everything I write.

5. Ditch your pride. The story is more important than your ego. Think about it — When you're reading a story, do you care one drop about the author's ego? Of course not; you care about the story itself. When you don't feel convinced by a scene, you could care less if the author's defense would be, "But, it really happened like that!" When you're snoozing through a slow opening, you don't excuse it by saying, "I'm sure the writer's mother liked it, so it's okay with me, too." When you feel a character suddenly behaves in a way we haven't been remotely prepared for, you don't think, "Oh, well, the author must have simply gotten sick of working on this story and decided to stop being so nit-picky"; you think, "This stinks!" Readers don't care about your ego. They don't care if your mother thought the story was great. They care only about the story itself. You may have to repeat this like a mantra to yourself, but eventually it will sink in and start corroding your resistance.

6. Accept that revision is a cyclical process. One round of improving your draft is only one round. It may take many rounds before the story is done. Each time you'll have to go through reading it out loud, sharing it with trusted readers, ditching your pride. That's the process of revision. Amy Tan revised The Joy Luck Club about 12 times — and many writers would say 12 times is a small number. Revision is a fact of life.

7. Realize there is no one correct way to revise anything. Revision is about exploring some possibilities out of an infinite selection of possibilities and finding the solutions that work best for your particular story. But there is no single, perfect answer. The more creative your solutions are to your revision problems, the better your writing will be.

Technical Approaches to Revision

When you need to revise a story, that doesn't mean that you're stupid or untalented. It means that you're normal. Hilma Wolitzer, writing about revision in her essay "Twenty Questions," says, "Do you revise? Is the sun going to set today? One of the great pleasures of writing is revision, the second and third and fourth chance you hardly ever get in any other area of your life."

Revision is a broad term which encompasses many detailed actions. When I first began to understand revision, I realized that what I had thought was revision — trimming the ending, changing from present to past tense, making a red dress blue — was only one level of revision, and the final one at that. Revision can be an all-encompassing, Sherman's army that mows down everything except the name of the town, or it can be a dainty spring breeze that does little besides ruffle the petals. Sometimes all that's needed is a spring breeze. But sometimes you need to attack with much more powerful force.

This is because, as I now see it, there are three basic divisions of the process, which I'll now go into in some detail. These are, in my own personal terminology, cosmetic changes, surgical strikes, and major overhauls.

Cosmetic Changes. This is the dainty spring breeze — the tiny things you change here and there. You want to change Cinderella's slipper from gold to glass, for instance, so you erase one word and substitute the other. Or maybe you realize you have two sentences making the same point. Listen: "On that June morning, beneath the trumpeting rays of the sun, roses blushed into bloom, frogs sprang skyward from sleepy crouches, and seedlings moshed with adolescent glee. It was a beautiful day." Obviously, "It was a beautiful day" merely recapitulates what was just illustrated, and therefore is unnecessary. Being a careful writer, you cut it (or, better yet, cut it while toning down the other). Cosmetic changes are the easiest kinds of changes, and as a result are what most apprentice writers usually think is meant by revision. Fix a word here and there, alter hair color from blonde to brunette, and the story is finished. However, this is frequently the final, not the first, level of revision — no matter how brilliant a writer you are. This is one of the most major attitudinal shifts that a writer must make. We all want to think that our stories need only cosmetic changes and, in fact, that cosmetic changes are what is meant by the term "revision." But cosmetic changes are only the finishing touches — actually, the penultimate finishing touches, the final finishing touches being referred to as Polishing (which I'll go into more later). Suffice to say cosmetic changes are what you do to get it to that final stage of revision. Accepting this early in your writing career will make your life much easier.

Surgical Strikes. These are similar to cosmetic changes, except instead of working on the level of the word or sentence, they're on the level of the paragraph or section. Maybe in the middle of your Cinderella story you have a lovely flashback about Cinderella's days in the Girl Scouts, and how she earned her botanical merit badge while gathering strawberries in a meadow. The scene has nothing to do with the story of Cinderella and so, despite its lyrical appeal, eventually you come to recognize it's superfluous and cut it. Or let's say you've organized the story so Cinderella goes to the ball, comes home, and returns to being a servant-girl. You need to have the prince rescue her, but you can't figure out how to get them together again. Finally, revision lightning strikes, and you realize you need to introduce an element that's not in your story — so you invent the device of the glass slipper, which you then go back and weave through the story. Surgical strike, then, is a bit more challenging than a cosmetic change, because it means giving up something substantial that was in your first draft, or putting in something substantial that had not been there previously — and tracing it throughout the entire story.

Major Overhaul. This is Sherman's army, the most formidable level of revision. Let's say you started writing a story about Cinderella, a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters. But shortly after the first page, you veered off into having Cinderella meet a Martian, and then shifted to Mars and spent time with the Grack Family, and you needed to get Cinderella to Mars but didn't have a rocket in the story so you just figured, Screw it, no one will notice, and put her on Mars, and while we're at it, let's get that Girl Scout scene in somewhere. Eventually, you see you don't have a good story, and that for you to get to one, you need to blow up your first draft and start from scratch. This is the TNT approach to revision, and unfortunately is necessary more often than we might like. With my collection of stories I never did a major overhaul, but I sure did with my novel, which accounted for two years of revision. With major overhaul, you shove dynamite into the text, detonate, and rescue only those shards of the story that will work. This is by far the most arduous level of revision, but once you've done it, you feel that you can conquer anything.

Most pieces of fiction initially need at least surgical strike, if not major overhaul. It is important to recognize that these earlier stages of revision, though seemingly overwhelming at first, actually take a briefer period of time than cosmetic changes. This is because major overhauls and surgical strikes deal with larger, and hence fewer, elements; cosmetic changes deal with all the minute elements, and so you have many.

How do you know which of these three levels you need to address when you first begin revising? I recommend that you step away from your story for awhile, and then reread it in its entirety, focusing first on how it works on the macro level. Look at the larger elements, such as overall story, pacing, character development, structure, scene, consistency of voice. See if you think these were done well, given how you reacted emotionally and how they made you think. If you need to juggle those larger elements, then you need major overhaul or surgical strikes. This will most likely be the scenario. Later on, after you have gone through several rounds of those levels of revision, reread the piece yet again, this time looking at the more minute, or micro, elements. These include how the voice was created, how the characters were introduced, what the metaphors refer to, how the transitions were accomplished, if the sentence variety was satisfying. When examining micro elements, ultimately you will want to break the text into smaller and smaller units — first the area between space breaks, then groups of paragraphs, then a single paragraph, then a sentence, then a clause, then a word.

Eventually the process will become automatic. The big hurdle is the internal one that says you can't mess with your initial view of the piece. Once you overcome that obstacle — and see the text as fluid — then the rest becomes routine.

Let's talk some more about Polishing, which could be a semester's course unto itself. Polishing is what all stories need in their final, final stages of revision. The reason I didn't give it its own level of revision is that it is more detailed and obsessive than most writers think possible before they've entered the process of revision. Polishing is what you do after all your parts makes sense — the story is there, the details connect, the transitions work, the pacing is on target, etc. — but the whole thing is still a little flabby. The writing itself contains excess, redundancy, sloppiness — in other words, writing that slows the reader down. This is why other ways to describe polishing are trimming, cutting the wordiness, and tightening.

One of my favorite books for teaching tightening is Write Tight: How To Keep Your Prose Sharp, Focused, and Concise, by William Brohaugh. I recommend all writers pick up a copy of this book, or another book that goes into polishing. Brohaugh defines flabby writing as "anything that physically slows the sweep of the eyes across the words, that stands physically in the way of the reader's mind absorbing the meaning of the words as quickly as possible." He then goes on to give 16 types of wordiness. Here are two:

The redundant:

What's the point of each sentence, paragraph, or section? If you find that more than one of those units is trying to say the same thing, combine them or cut.

Redundancy also applies to the level of the word: "We did that before in the past." "Now playing at a theater near you." "The situation still remains the same." "Temporary reprieve." "First began." "passed the test successfully." "Absolutely necessary." "Mentally thought." And, though Hemingway does it, "Nodded my head." (What else would one nod?)

The empty:

Words such as very, extremely, really, generally, usually, basically, awfully, actually, literally, kind of, pretty much, quite, a bit, essentially, more or less, for the most part, etc. "I'm very outraged by this!" Just rework your sentence to incorporate the qualifier. So: "It was awfully cold" can easily be translated as "It was frigid."

Emptiness can come in phrases: "If you're interested in the weather, it will rain tomorrow." "For your information..." "In case you were wondering."

Emptiness can also come in transitions: "Jane Doe is installing a home security system. And she's not the only one. Thousands of people will buy such systems this year." Better: don't just eliminate the middle sentence, but combine the other sentences: "Jane Doe is installing a home security system, as will thousands of people this year."

Emptiness can come in a situation of response, whether that is the narrator's own internal thought, or in dialogue. Note the repetition in the following: Question: "How did you get interested in writing?" Answer: "My mother inspired me." Question: "That happens a lot." Answer: "She always read to me before I went to bed." Another example: "Your time is up, Gertrude," John said. "Oh, and why is that?" "The clock just ran out."

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