Clear, Interesting, and Intentional

As I worked through a writing-filled Saturday, I found myself ready to go back and begin revisions on my most recent novel. I remember revising work only three or four years ago. This is how it went: I would begin reading back through a completed piece. Change a few words here and there. And then just keep reading, reading, reading. My revisions were grammar and vocabulary oriented. Nothing major. And that’s really because I had no plan of action or thought process for it.

Recently, I’ve found my times of revision far more fruitful. I find paragraphs that need to be fully reworked. On occasion, I remove chapters. Sometimes I cut characters from the plot entirely. What changed?

I had trouble putting my finger on it until a recent reading of Barbara Tuchman’s selected essays. In describing how we must write for the “general reader” she says, “when you write for the public you have to be clear and you have to be interesting and these are the two criteria which make for good writing.”

So let’s break down those component parts for revision purposes:

1. Revising for Clarity- Yes, this does mean that you go back and read through every, single paragraph. Even those chapters that you just know that you slaved over, and that you may feel are perfect, need to be read again. As you go back through, the purpose is to figure it out if every sentence is offering something clear to the reader. That’s the relationship. I know, I know. A lot of authors despise such things. “I don’t write for an audience! I write for me!” That’s noble, I suppose, but I also find it a poor consideration of the backbone of story. To deny the importance of the other side of the writing relationship is such an odd tendency.

Anyway, I struggle with clarity because I love winding and complex sentence structures. I love to try for new things and twist words in clever ways. Unfortunately, too much of that can fumble the transference of an image from your brain to the reader’s. I’m not saying that you need to have repetitive and rote sentence structures throughout your book, but I am suggesting you fine-tune the areas of your novel that are muddled. For me, this simply means going back and asking, “Alright, does the reader understand where Indira is standing here? Do they understand that she is about to jump from this cliff and onto that bird? How do I make that more clear with the language I use?”

2. Revising for Interest – I’ve learned my lesson from Pierce Brown’s Golden Son. I wrote this in my review of his work, but he simply makes his characters do the most interesting things possible. Now, that obviously cannot work for every piece of literature. His is a rollicking space opera centered around a backstabbing war fought by deadly forces. It lends itself to writing that is non-stop and nearly manic. Your novel may not do that at all points. However, it is crucial to go back and edit for interest. I ask all my beta-readers to identify any parts of my story that seem long or winding. Where did they start to get that urge to put it down and go eat something? I’ve felt that way a great deal in reading Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. To be fair, Sanderson is one of the top fantasy writers at present. But I really am struggling to fight through the book. Yes, it is an epic fantasy. But no, it isn’t always interesting to me. In fact, until we got to Dalinar and Adolin, I was ready to give up on the book completely. So as you go back in your novel, what can be cut out? What is roundabout or boring? What paragraphs are saying the same things as other paragraphs? And is there any way to increase the tension, conflict, and suspense in the scene? Revising for these features seems crucial.

3. Revising for Intentionality- Now, Tuchman doesn’t mention this one. However, I find great value in it. I learned the word “intentional” from two different parts of my life: basketball and Young Life. I want to avoid one in my writing and adopt the other. First, intentional in basketball. It usually relates to committing an intentional foul. These are the fouls that go beyond the call of duty. They are only called when a referee thinks you’ve gone past the normal rough and tumble of the sport and done something to purposefully hurt the other player. I don’t want to write with that kind of intention. I don’t want my themes and ideas to be the equivalent of tackling someone as they go up for a layup.

BOOM. Be respectful of your parents. BOOM. Always try your hardest. BOOM. Treat others the way you want to be treated.

Frankly, I don’t think lessons are learned that way. But the other kind of intentional? YoungLife taught me to live intentionally. When I had to meet younger, high school guys I wanted to be intentional with my conversation and actions. It had everything to do with pursuing relationships that were meaningful and speaking love intentionally into their lives. I absolutely believe that authors have an opportunity to communicate intentional and meaningful messages with their work. So the third thing that I go back and try to edit is thematic revelations. Is there a tangible line that I can trace in the lessons my character is learning? Do I have them internally reflect on that? Do I have characters that wrestle with meaningful topics? What message would a reader walk away with after reading each scene?

I once had a teacher that said “diversity” cannot be sprinkled into your classroom. It has to be infused into it until it’s just as active and present as any other part of it. I think the same is true of intentional messages for our readers. How do we infuse our work so that the middle-schooler or high-schooler or adult that reads it will walk away with some intangible form of inspiration? I don’t know how to do it all the time yet, but I want to try.

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