Recently, I’ve been listening to the Writing Excuses podcasts. My wife and I have had a number of flights around Europe and I’m finding a few downloaded podcasts can really be enjoyable to pass time in those often uncomfortably small chairs.
Several of the episodes I listened to focused on revision. How do we take the first, sprawling drafts and make them good? This is a question asked by every author, regardless of their status as published or unpublished. So often, a story is quite clear in our head. We know who the characters are, why they’re doing what they’re doing, and what it all means.
But so often, our first drafts fail to communicate that to the reader in the way we would have liked. Barbara Tuchmann once said that the two key elements of any piece of writing are interest and clarity. First, we must write things people actually care to read. Second, we must write in such a way that the reader can actually understand the content they’re taking in.
We are not without previous advice on the subject. One of my favorite examples comes from Anne Lamott. She broke her revisions into three separate categories. The down draft (just get everything down on paper). The updraft (take what you have down and clean it up). The dental draft (where you clean every tooth and make sure it’s spotless).
Another great piece of advice came from a tweet by Shannon Hale. She described first drafts as shoveling sand into a box. That sounds lacking in artistic beauty without the final half of her tweet, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box, so that later I can build castles.” How wonderful is that? It gives a certain freedom to aspiring authors and their works in progress. Just shovel. Later, you’ll have the raw material needed to craft something exquisite and lovely.
So with those thoughts in mind, I wanted to share my own revision process. I share it just to offer a reminder that everyone has different ideas about how to revise their work. My way may not work for you, but it may help you to feel better about how you do it. Or it may give you another road by which you arrive at a novel’s end:
Unlike some of the descriptions above, I don’t just shovel stream-of-conscience thoughts onto the page with no punctuation or grammar or anything. I doubt Shannon Hale does either.
I think I can make a claim on being a “prolific” writer. I’m not Asimov or Brandon Sanderson, but I did finish five books in the last twelve months. I don’t do so by flooding my documents with random thoughts. Rather, I take my time. I write with intentional focus. I consider my paragraphs. I analyze each sentence. But at the end of the day, I’m not overly worried about it being perfect.
The Next Day
I start every new writing day by reading back through what I wrote the day before. There is never a day where I start writing something new without looking over something old. Let’s say I wrote 3,000 words. I will scroll to the very beginning of it and begin edits. Oftentimes, this is a line-by-line approach. Most of the edits I’m making can be lumped into four separate categories:
- Word choice – I look for repetitive phrasing, word choices, etc.
- Clarity – I consider if my reader would understand what I’ve written. I especially do this with blocking and movement. Is it understood?
- Crappy Stuff – At times, I know a paragraph isn’t accomplishing what I wanted. In those instances, I hit enter and start retyping the section. I take out what I know isn’t working and put in what I think is missing.
- Accomplishment- What is the point of each of these paragraphs? Do they achieve anything? Do they achieve the wrong thing?
If I’m going to submit to my writing group, or to my agent (or now to an editor!), I will go back and do a final round of edits. Often, I read this aloud to myself. Not advisable if in in public, but definitely advisable if you want to hear what your mental ear has been missing.
Sometimes, I subject my wife to this stage in the process. Let’s say I read her 1,000 words. I will correct no less than 10 word choices or phrasings every time. You can hear the awkward funk if you read it out.
Here’s the part we don’t like to hear. After combing through and “perfecting” your manuscript, you probably have two or three more edits. Maybe five or six. Let me walk through two examples:
GREYGLANCE- The first book I attempted to submit to agents didn’t work. I had one serious and highly successful agent take interest in it. She wanted a revision. This request came after four other revisions of the manuscript. I accepted the challenge. I spent a week in San Francisco destroying my story and rebuilding it. It worked. I submitted again.
She rejected it again. So what now? Well, I’ve revised that manuscript three more times in the past year. I likely have one more big revision to raise it to the current level of writing displayed in the book that did get a publishing deal for me. That’s just how things go.
BLACK HOLE OF BROKEN THINGS – Let’s talk about the book that got me the deal. When I landed with my agent, Kristin Nelson, I had to go through painful edits with her. It really was painful. I felt every bit of the age-old kill your darlings phrase.
When I completed those, we submitted. Every interested publisher had ideas about revision. When Emily Easton and I begin working together, I will have a lot of edits from her. After that, I will have my book ripped apart for grammar by a copyeditor. That’s how publishing works.
These examples demonstrate the importance of not allowing fear to dictate your writing and revision. I believe you should make the best possible version you can on your own. Use writing groups. Use beta readers. Work hard! But know that there are several more edits and revisions coming before your book ever sees the shelves. The myth of perfection is paralyzing. Don’t give into it.
One of my favorite comments on revision came from author Stuart Dybek. We discussed the process with him in my final semester at UNC. When asked how many times he revised a story before it’s done, he laughed. He said his stories are never done. He claimed to occasionally go back to already published stories and work on them.
“I had more to say. I didn’t know it then, but I had more to say.”
You have more to say. So go and write. Go and revise.
We’re waiting to hear your stories.