Of all the inhabitants of the literary schoolyard, Revision is the writer’s best frenemy. When you finally type “the end” and lean back in your chair, relishing the rush of accomplishment that comes from a finished story, it’s Revision who smiles smugly and says: “That’s really good. Now we have to fix it.” And while you know that’s absolutely true, and that revising and rewriting will help turn your words into something beautiful and – ideally - sellable, there is a moment, when Revision first appears to join the process, that you just want to kick it in the shins.
Or is it just me?
The problem is that writing and revision are two very different things and a writer needs to split their personality accordingly. During the first draft, passion and creativity take the lead. Everything is brilliant and exciting. When revising, however, there’s a harder, analytical quality that must be present or you’ll fail to actually improve anything. At first, your work is your baby. When revising, it’s a product being made ready for market. Most of us are good at the former or we wouldn’t be writers. The trick is getting the best out of our revision time so our good work really shines. Here are some ideas for how.
Take a break. Go and write something else. Don’t look at the story or even think about it for a while. When you come back, you’ll see it with fresh eyes and it will surprise you. Some parts will be amazingly good. Some will be sloppy and bad. If you’ve given yourself enough distance, you’ll recognise them both.
Be open to change
Revising requires a willingness to recognise where things need improving. That’s hard. Sometimes it’s realising a work needs to be started over or abandoned altogether. Mostly, it’s just being able to let go of anything that doesn’t serve the story. That funny anecdote about the skating antelope might make you giggle, but if it’s not useful to the story, find the delete key.
Listen to your instincts
Writers are also readers. We know when something doesn’t work. It might take a while to figure out why it doesn’t work, and how to fix it, but it’s worth spending the time. Think about alternative approaches. Could the setting be changed? Could it be from a different character’s point of view? Do you have too many characters present? Could this scene be melded with another, creating an even more exciting hybrid scene? Try on all the ideas and see how they fit. When you hit upon the right one, you’ll know.
When in doubt, cut it out
What if you can’t find the answer to fixing a scene? Then maybe you don’t need that scene at all. Whenever I spend a long time on a scene and can’t get it to work, I probably ought to just cut it. We’re programmed to try to fix things. Sometimes it’s hard to recognise when to throw something out.
Get some feedback
Getting another point of view on your work can be incredibly helpful to the revision process, but be aware of who’s giving it to you. Your mum is unlikely to give you the same kind of critique a writing group would. A writer’s ego must be delicately balanced against their desire to improve. Find people who will support, but also critique and suggest.
Remember, it’s still your story. Listen objectively, weigh up the value of what people are telling you, then decide for yourself whether to agree or take action. In my writing group, we get very passionate in our critiquing, but always respect the writer’s ultimate come back line: “Well it’s my story, so there.”
Help the people you ask for feedback by giving them a clear idea of what you want from them. That way you’ll avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
Identify your personal weak spots
We all have them - little weaknesses that show up time and again in our writing. Figuring out what they are will help you improve anything you write.
One of mine was melodrama. I was fortunate to get feedback from a short story competition judge who observed that my story, while good, had a moment of melodrama near the end. I figured it was feedback from a reliable source, so I studied the story to find what they meant. Not entirely convinced, I nevertheless adjusted it and send the story to a different competition. It won. I looked at one of my other stories that also hadn’t been successful yet – sure enough, melodramatic moments. I deleted a few sentences and that too won a prize in a competition. Now, it’s something I watch for in everything I write.
If you can find your own personal weak spots, you’ll streamline your revision process and turn those weaknesses into strengths.
Run the spell-check!
Then check for where the spell-check got it wrong. The computer doesn’t know when a word spelled correctly is actually the wrong word.
Read it again
And again. And again. Don’t skim the dodgy bits. Revision is where we creative types get forced to learn discipline. Every part of your work needs to be tight, clear and shining. A lazy sentence must be put to work or sent home.
Revision, when it comes down to it, really does want to be your friend. While it might seem an annoyingly smug wet blanket at first, secretly it’s the kindhearted, nerdy kid who just can’t help pointing out your spelling mistakes, reminding you of the rules, and telling you how to write better. And actually, in the end, isn’t that what we want?
Originally printed in the SpecFicNZ Voice newsletter