stripped-down room, renovations in progress

Revision Revisited

I’m at the stage of my work in progress that follows finishing the first draft. That draft was a 6-month sprint compared to the rewrite, which right now feels like it’s not even a marathon, but a journey.

Several months ago, I heard a talk by a writer and editor about the psychological state of the writer while revising a piece of writing. I will not name that person here because I’ll be mixing their ideas with my interpretations and extrapolations.

The talk began with a writer’s inherent resistance to revision. There are several reasons for it, but the ones I related to most were the fear that making changes to a piece of writing might unravel it entirely, and the fear of being overwhelmed by the possibilities for changes. The first is like pulling on a thread in a sweater, and the second like looking at a map with dozens of possible routes to a destination.

Then there are the words used to describe the process: revision, rewriting, editing. Let’s start with “editing.” As I see it used, it covers everything from major structural changes to proofreading, and therefore is often qualified, as in developmental editing, structural editing, line editing, stylistic editing, copyediting, etc.

Some writers say they edit as they write. This can mean only that they clean up their prose sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph, correcting typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors. Maybe they evaluate word choices and delete or add words or sentences. If you go back and read what you’ve just written, it’s impossible not to do this type of editing, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s definitely not revision or rewriting, which involves deleting or moving paragraphs or entire scenes, or writing fresh ones from scratch.

To me, revision and rewriting are pretty much the same, but when I look at the words, it makes sense that revision happens first. It’s re-envisioning the work, which then requires rewriting. One way of looking at it is that the writer must be freshly inspired by the work as written to shape it into its full potential. In other words, revision is a new beginning, rather than the conclusion of a writing project.

Elements of revision:

  • The Imaginer must be present at the rewrite
  • It’s necessary to identify the core essence of the story
  • It’s necessary to identify the crucial scenes and amp them to the max
  • Strip the connective matter between those scenes to the bare minimum
  • Identify areas of weakness and take deliberate action to remedy them

To elaborate on each of these

The Imaginer must be present at the rewrite. It can’t be left up to the Editor and Inner Critic, who may convince the writer (of whom they are components) that the work is unimprovable, or that it’s perfect as it is and major rewriting will destroy it. At this stage the work is malleable, like unfired clay.

Identify the core essence of the story. This is done by reading it without getting sucked into making minor changes, which is hard to do. It may be helpful to set the manuscript aside for a week or longer before this read-through. This disengages the brain from the work and prevents it from supplying missing elements which would not be available to a reader who isn’t the writer.

Identify the crucial scenes and amp them to the max. During that read-through, write down (with pen on paper) the most emotionally significant moment in each chapter or scene, and focus on perfecting it.

Strip connective matter between scenes to the bare minimum. This may be text that “sets up” a scene or describes characters moving from one place to another. While the writer needs to work out these details while creating the story, the reader doesn’t always need to see them.

Identify areas of weakness and act deliberately to remedy them. Description, dialogue, character motivation, conflict and tension, climax and resolution. Any of these may be problematic and in need of attention. An editor, critique partners, or beta readers may be helpful in calling attention to the problems. However, the writer should beware of taking action on any and all suggestions. Asking for feedback on specifics is more productive.

The goal is to produce a narrative that transcends the writer’s expectations and elicits an emotional reaction in the reader, even when the reader is also the writer. If, during the revision process, the writer gets bored with the story or tired of the characters, the story has not reached its burning essence.

That said, the writer must decide when it’s good enough. Only then is it time for what is usually called “editing”–looking for continuity problems, making the best word choices, and correcting grammar and spelling errors, and typos.

I’m a long way from that stage yet, because I’m in no rush. One thing I’ve learned is that when my attitude toward the work becomes mostly negative, it’s time to step away and do something else. I can’t find that burning essence when I’m physically tired or weighed down by everyday mental baggage.

Fellow writers, I’m sure you all have your own approaches to rewriting and editing. Feel free to share in the comments!

Image by Monica Silvestre from Pexels

43 comments

    1. There might be something called “first draft drift,” when what I call the Imaginer says “Outline be damned” and takes off. Reverse outlining sounds like a good idea. I think I’ll do that when I’ve gotten through the second draft. I’m still working out some basic plot elements and sticking in new stuff, as well as removing excess.

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  1. Hi. I don’t write books. My writing is confined to the pieces I publish on my blog. I tend to edit as I go along. And I do plenty of revisions too, because I often see that I’m not making the points that I should be making. One thing is for sure: writing isn’t easy.

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  2. I am at this stage right now so thanks for the tips. Reading my WIP out loud helps me notice plot holes and other problems. Beta readers are good too as they point out things we as authors miss. Bets not to rush this part of the process.

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  3. A valuable perspective on editing, Audrey. I must admit I’ve not thought of it this way, but you’re right. Editing is more than just tidying things up as you go along. The idea of finishing a story and then effectively trying to re-imagine it from start to finish, but in a tighter form, is a daunting one, and one I’m very hesitant to undertake. But it gives you a chance to say: what exactly is it I’m trying to say here? And how well am I saying it? Unravelling the threads from a sweater is a good analogy.

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    1. It’s most uncomfortable to be at the point where you’re technically finished writing, but you know the work isn’t as good as you want it to be. That may be a good time to set it aside for a while.
      I don’t knit, so an unravelled sweater is a disturbing image for me.

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  4. My first novel, One Night in Bridgeport … I completely re-wrote and then it went through two very harsh edits before I published it. Ever since, I haven’t every revised or re-written anything I’ve written. I’m an “edit as I go” writer, and once I type the final word, I go back and edit again. I’m not sure why I don’t revise or re-write anymore, it’s just the way it happens. But, if I had to guess, it’s because once I type “the end,” it also is the end for the story in my head and going back and revising or re-writing is just not something I want to do.

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  5. A very thoughtful article, Audrey. You put far more thought into writing than I do. Which is probably a good thing, if, perhaps, more intimidating.

    Right from the start, I made writing simple, Since I know what I like, I decided that I would just write to please myself. These days I do think about other readers when it comes to the type of story I write — I’ve gotten a little more commercial in that respect. But when I write it, I write it as I would want it to read.

    Ideally I produce three drafts. The first draft, which should be pretty solid, if a bit sketchy, since I am very reluctant to make major changes once I’ve written the first draft. The second draft is where I hopefully only have to shorten and straighten sentences, rewrite and rearrange paragraphs, and flesh out some dialog, scenes, and scenery in the light of the completed story. My second draft word count generally grows by 5% to 10%. I then go through it a third time. If I’m only changing words here and there, I’m good to go, since I know that no matter how many times I go through it, I’ll want to change a word here and there. If I’m changing whole paragraphs in this pass, I’ll go through it again, and again, until it’s a word here and there.

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    1. That’s a good way to tell what stage you’re at, Chuck. If you’re finding major chunks of text that need to be moved, deleted, or added, you’re not at that final finishing stage. Sort of like grades of sandpaper when you’re doing woodwork, maybe.

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  6. A useful breakdown.
    I look at much of this as the “meta” of the story. The layer above the sentence and paragraph composition. Must we move D before B to set up C with better understanding?

    And then there’s this > “prevents [our brain] from supplying missing elements.”

    That, to me, is the reason to distance oneself from the writing, time wise, in order to forget what you inherently know about the story. Put it in the drawer and months later still find blatant errors you’d missed, over and over, because you didn’t actually read it, you knew it, so skipped it.

    Good stuff, Audrey.

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    1. Distancing from a work is easier for those who are okay with having a number of writing projects in the works, rather than focussing on one big one exclusively. One-project writers should have other activities they can engage in while “resting” their work in progress. Gardening is good for that at times.

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  7. Yep. All of that. The final first draft is the start of a long journey, and it has the journey mapped but not necessarily a clear path to the best moment – which is the revisioning, followed by the rewriting. Maybe several times. And then comes the proofreading stuff. Several times. Then the beta readers. Followed by a fresh review/revision/rewrite … etc. etc. etc.

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  8. Editing for me includes the broad scope that you mentioned, everything from developmental, to complete restructuring to proofreading. I spend 2 or 3 drafts on developmental editing, and several more on rejigging sentences to make them clearer or more succinct, and introducing nuances. Along the way, I fix typos, but there’s still the proofreading to be done at the end. This is my weakest area because I’ve already read the manuscript so many times that I no longer see what I should, even with reading aloud.

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  9. This is an excellent post Audrey. I’m up to my eyebrows in a similar process. I’m finding that along with all the methods you mention I have also needed to go back and review the motivation of the main characters. Why do they act in the ways they do? What do they learn from the experience? A lot of the problems with the story I’m writing have stemmed from not being entirely sure about these things from the outset. I’m finding this phase of the editing process has plunged into deeper waters but the story is finally coming together on a core level.

    I agree – editing is very different from creative writing. It’s easy to overwork and spent hours doing endless copy edits. It is impossible to do keep up the process relentlessly day after day for hours at a time without getting burnt out and losing faith in the whole project. That remains a constant possibility.

    Good luck with your manuscript.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes–character motivation is crucial. In the first draft, I had the characters do all kinds of things without thinking out if they made sense. Now I’m going from one scene to another to make sure there are logical links between them.
      And you’re right that this process can’t be rushed without leading to burnout.
      Thanks for your thoughts, Suzanne, and good luck with your work in progress as well.

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  10. I do a bit of a line edit of my previous day’s work as I knock out the first draft. (and quite a few ‘notes to self’, in red scattered throughout) Once the first draft is done. I do a content edit of each chapter, print it out and hand it off to Mrs Widds for same. It comes back to me with red pen notes all over it, and we discuss the ‘whys and wherefores’ of any major suggestions. I then edit again and move on to the next chapter
    Once we’ve gone through the entire book we go back to the beginning and do it all over again. This time it’s mostly a line edit … and then it’s done. 😀
    I tend to catch anything that needs a rewrite anywhere between the first draft and content edit.

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  11. For me, the first draft is sometimes sheer torture because I do all of those tasks ‘as I go’. I guess that’s part and parcel of being a pantster hybrid. I’ve re-written, re-structured and re-thought the current wip so many times, i’m sick of it. So I take long breaks from it. I’ve always been like this, but when I was only writing for myself, it was a lot easier. Now, I’m trying to meet the expectations of a reader I may never know as well as my own expectations. Not enjoying writing at the moment. 😦

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  12. I’m quite ashamed to read all this. it may be my scriptwriting and deadline hangover moving to writing novels, but I sort of just go for it and as I live in my characters, I tend not to think characterizations etc. I sometimes go back and put in an extra scene (often a red herring) if my mental story swerves off course and I want to link it up. But it sort of ‘comes’ if that makes sense.

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    1. Given all your writing experience, you may have developed techniques to write well without having to revisit the work multiple times. To be honest, my first novel gushed forth with little effort and I didn’t do much revision until AFTER I had published it and joined a critique group.

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