The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
* * *
That powerful verse from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam must surely resonate with every adult of a certain age who reads it.
Fortunately for us on The Kill Zone, however, Mr. Khayyam wasn’t writing about writing. Authors can indeed go back and cancel half a line, delete a few sentences, or even start the whole darn thing over from scratch. So, let’s talk about revision.
* * *
There are a variety of opinions on the need to revise a manuscript. Here are a few:
- Robert Heinlein’s famous rules include the following #3: “You must refrain from rewriting unless to editorial demand.”
- At the other end of the spectrum, Joyce Carol Oates recommends an author spend more time revising than writing the first draft.
- Anne Lamott said all good writers write bad first drafts.
- And then there’s this quote from John Irving: “Half my life is an act of revision.”
Clearly, not everyone agrees on the need to revise, or how much time should be spent on it. But for those who do favor spending that time, how should they approach the revision process?
* * *
In my limited experience, revision is a serious part of my writing. Although I don’t keep detailed time sheets, I’m guessing I spend at least half my time revising. (When I talk about revision, I’m not talking about fixing grammar, typos, or punctuation mistakes. Those can be fixed by software and good editors. To me, revision concerns the story itself, the way it ebbs and flows, how the underlying theme plays out, and the rhythm of the words.)
My first draft is an act of getting the story out of me and onto the page. Some of it may be good, but some of it is just plain vanilla story-telling without any spice. Revision is an opportunity to transform that first story idea into an entertaining, thought-provoking novel. But it’s also a balancing act. How do I keep the voice, the tone, the essence of the thing I created while changing it? It’s like trying to make sure you don’t spoil the wine while polishing the cup it’s in.
* * *
There are plenty of books and online resources with information about how to revise, but here are a few pieces of advice I’ve found helpful:
- To get a clear perspective of your work, take some time off between finishing the first draft and starting the revision process. (Sue Coletta wrote a TKZ post on Critical Distance last week.)
- After taking the break (which may last a week or a month), read through the first draft at one sitting, if possible. Some craft experts recommend printing the manuscript so that it’s easy to make notes on the pages.
- Review the overall arc of the plot: I use Scrivener’s outline feature to get the number of words in each chapter, and I add a sentence or two to describe the timeframe and goal for each chapter. Then I download this to a spreadsheet and calculate the percentage through the book for each milestone. I may rearrange the chapters (easy to do in Scrivener) or even delete sections that don’t serve the story. I may add new scenes or chapters.
- Revisit the characters. Is the main character well-defined and can you trace his/her arc through the plot? Do the secondary characters add spice to the story?
- Reread each scene. Does it tell a story in itself? Does it end with a reason for the reader to turn the page? Is the dialogue snappy?
- Check the pacing. Does the pacing give the reader a chance to catch his/her breath after a tense scene?
- Back to the beginning. Review the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page of the manuscript. Will this hook a reader?
- Get feedback from Beta readers. Their first-time-through reactions are invaluable.
- Never Give Up
This list appears to be linear, but my process is more iterative. I go back through steps #3-#7 as many times as I think I need to, and I employ a developmental editor and a copy editor to help me refine my work. I also have the good fortune to have a novelist husband who listens to my concerns and helps me figure out how to solve all the little problems that pop up as I make my way through this labyrinth called Writing.
- So, TKZers: How important is revision to you?
- What steps do you take to revise your manuscript?
- What percentage of your writing time is spent revising?