What We Talk About When We Talk About Revising

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Whether you’re just coming down from an adrenaline-fueled National Novel Writing Month high or you’ve been working at a more leisurely pace, at some point (if you stick with it) you’ll write “The End” on that first draft of your novel.

Good on ya! Feels great, doesn’t it?

So . . . now what?

Now comes what some authors (me included) consider to be THE crucial part of the entire process: revising. Here is where your book really comes together and you polish (or maybe discover) your unique vision and its execution.

I once read a good analogy for the first draft: its purpose is to get all the sand into the sandbox, so you can then start building your castle.

Your first draft is your raw material. It’s the revising that turns it into a book.

Sadly, there’s no magic formula for revision. It always depends upon what’s on the page and what you’re striving for, as well as your own background and experience.

In this brief post, I can’t cover the specifics of how to revise. There are literally hundreds of books, articles, checklists, and blog posts out there that will tell you exactly what and how to revise.

Sometimes these are helpful, sometimes not.

From my 20+ years of experience as a writer and another 20+ years as a teacher of writing, I’ve found there are some things that are helpful for writers to keep in mind about revising, as well as some critical mistakes that writers make when they try to revise.

Here’s my take on what those are.

1. Take a break.

It doesn’t do to jump right into revising when the draft is still hot. The general wisdom is to let the draft sit for a while, and in this instance the general wisdom is correct. Though your impulse might be to turn around and start in on the next version, let it cool down from the heat of composition. Take a break. Catch your breath. Clear your head. Reduce your sleep debt. Reintroduce yourself to your family. You need distance before you can move on.

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Some authors like a little help from their friends when they revise.

2. Remember what you’re up to.

Revising literally means “re-seeing.” You’re taking another look at your work with an eye toward making it as good as it can be. Some people distinguish between revising and rewriting; they say revising means working with the draft you have, whereas rewriting means tossing it all and starting over. I tend to conflate the two because I do some of both.

Revising is sparked by a conscious and critical assessment of a draft’s meaning, significance, and potential. It’s different from composing. And here’s where your reading background makes a real difference in how you approach your work; the more you’ve read, the more you’ll understand how your novel can (and should) take its place among the ongoing conversation of literature.

3. Remember what you’re NOT up to.

Revising does not mean either copyediting or proofreading. These are both key elements of bringing your work to completion, but they just get in the way if you do them too early.

Copyediting means bringing your draft into conformity with conventions of format, grammar, spelling, and punctuation; those tasks aren’t important now. “Proofreading” means reading a proof of your book and marking any typos or errors in grammar, style, or punctuation.

Neither of those help you with the substantive intellectual and creative act of revising. Sometimes a writer’s tendency is to start the work of revising at that level, thinking you’ll work up to the big stuff. Correcting those simple errors at the sentence level might feel good and make it seem as if you’re off to a good start.

But if that’s your impulse, you have to block it. Save that for the end. It’s just going to keep you from the real work you have to do, of “re-seeing” what you’ve written.

4. Start at the top and work down.

This doesn’t mean simply starting at the beginning. Rather, I’ve found it’s helpful to think about revising as a series of activities that move from the macro level (that is, the story level) to the micro level (the level of sentence structure and word choice). Even if you like to plunge into revising with a kind of “all-at-onceness” approach, consider these as conceptual guides for how you approach your project:

a. Revise for story structure and major plot points.

The story is the skeleton of your novel—what keeps it standing and moving. At this stage, you’re rethinking or even discovering the purpose of the book, what it is that drives the telling of the story, and sharpening the focus that gets your reader engaged.

Many authors look at their drafts in terms of “story beats”—that is, the key points of action that form the plot. These can be helpful, but even if you don’t think of the story in those terms, there will be high points of action or emotion that you should be aware of and craft for.

b. Revise for structure and development.

These are the muscles and tendons of your book. I like to think of this stage as being broken into different parts: character (thinking about character arcs, character development, dialogue, and character descriptions), scenes (sharpening scenes, pacing within and between scenes, and transitions), setting (describing the locations in time and place where your story unfolds), and point of view (clarifying the narrative voice through which the story is told).

c. Revising for sentence and word-level clarity.

This is the skin—the surface of the book. Here is where you plunge into sentence- and word-level revising, looking for improvements in style (making your writing more graceful and flowing) and clarity (making the writing more accessible to the audience).

Or not . . . if grace and clarity are not what you’re going for, then it’s good to know that, too.

This comes at the end of the process of revising for good reason. Why take time to correct an error or polish a sentence that might not make it to the final version? Also, when you revise a sentence, there’s a tendency to think, Yup, that sentence is done, which will make you less likely to edit it out if it doesn’t work.

IMG_06085. The basics matter.

If the previous suggestions sound like the elements of fiction that you might have learned in a creative writing course or workshop, that’s no accident. These form the core of your revising strategy because they form the basics of fiction.

As a certified Cranky Old Guy, I strongly believe that success as a fiction writer—or a poet or dramatist or essayist (or artist or musician or lawyer or engineer or anything, really)—means having control over the basics of your craft.

For the fiction writer, these elements of fiction—story, plot structure, character, point of view, language—are the foundations of your novel. And when we talk about revising, those are the elements to focus on. Learning about them takes time and effort, but the results repay that time.

Just as you can’t write a symphony without ever hearing one and knowing how it’s put together, you can’t write or revise your novel without knowing what the possibilities are for you. The more tools and understanding you have at your disposal, the more options you’ll have when it comes to the immensely complicated tasks associated with writing.

Despite its importance, I know some people find revising tedious, and approach it as an onerous chore. I would argue that revising is more important than the actual process of composition. Personally, I find it to be enormously satisfying, requiring you to marshal all your skills and talents and creativity. I hope you will find it so, too.

NoNoWriMo

As I write this, we are well into November, the month known in writing circles as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. It’s an annual, voluntary event in which writers sign up to work like crazy to finish the draft of a 50,000-word novel during the month of November.

All kinds of activities, tips, progress milestones, contests, camps, and supports are available for writers who take part.

UnknownIf you’re interested, there’s more information here: https://www.nanowrimo.org.

As you can tell from the website, what started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999 with 20 people who, as the founder has said, “wanted to write novels for the same dumb reasons twentysomethings start bands,” has since grown into a monster 501(C)(3) nonprofit extravaganza, with local chapters, competitions, and other activities to help writers start and finish the draft of a book.

I have seriously mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, I totally understand why people want to take part. Every writer has her own reasons; jumping into a novel is daunting, and finishing it is even harder. Something that helps you get started and keeps you going till the end can be helpful and necessary.

And the sheer pressure of the mass of other people who are doing it, too, can be comforting, even inspiring.

And it does work. The web site lists some of the well-known books—some best-sellers—that resulted from NaNoWriMo.

I know several people who take part in it. If you’re one of them, I wish you well, along with all the other tens of thousands of participants.

On the other hand, I know that I would never take part, even if it had been available when I started out trying to become a writer, way back in the pre-word processing days when typewriters roamed the Earth.

Challenging myself to write a novel of a predetermined length in a set time-frame is just not how I work, and it’s not how I believe novels (or, indeed, anything) should be written.

cnkdgibddso94ybusv6kI know, it’s a cranky thing to say.

When I’m in the drafting phase of a book, I’m writing every day, just as NaNoWriMo participants do. But for me, a novel unfolds itself in its own time (it “glideth at his own sweet will,” to use the wonderful phrase from Wordsworth). I need to give it (and myself) time for that unfolding and gliding to happen.

This includes time to let the plot go off in directions that may or may not not be useful; time to let ideas and characters develop and realign; time for “Aha!” moments when I figure out what the novel, or a scene, really wants to be about; time to struggle with decisions and revisions; time to think about where the book is going; or time to let it glide along where ever it wants to while I trail behind, trying to get it all down.

While I understand the purpose is to have a draft that can be revised and reworked, if I were writing with one eye on the calendar and the other on my ultimate word count, I know none of what needs to happen would happen.

Maybe some people can pull it off. I can’t.

I’ve often said that the most important thing about a first draft is that it gets done, but I know in my heart that’s not entirely true. Yes, it’s important to get it done, but it’s also important to respect—and enjoy—the process. The novel you’re working on may (and probably will) need to be longer than 50,000 words (possibly several times longer), yet if you’re aiming for 50,000 just to be able to say you did it, then you’re not being fair to the novel that you should be writing.

Additionally, while I understand that writing the draft of a novel is hard, for me it’s also a singular, solitary, even (dare I say) holy activity. Sorry, but I don’t believe if a writer is truly called to the profession, she or he should need to be part of a competition with others to write the same number of words on the same days at the same time of year.

Like I said: cranky.

NaNoWriMo reminds me of those HGTV shows that give themselves an artificial deadline for finding, remodeling, and selling a house. Sure, it adds drama (30 days till the open house! Now 29! Now 28! Now 27 and the roof needs replacing!), but it’s an artificial drama ginned up by the fake pressure of a reality show. Even the producers of those shows admit they’re rigged.

Finally, the last—and maybe most important—thing that bothers me about NaNoWriMo is the heartbreaking number of admissions I’ll start to see around now by people who fell behind in their word counts or otherwise had to end their attempts because life got in their way. I feel badly for them; their disappointment is real, and I empathize with it.

But I want to tell them, Don’t worry, this really isn’t how it has to be done.

If you disagree with any of this, I salute you, and respect your difference of opinion. If you’re in NaNoWriMo this year, and it works for you, I wish you all the best. I get it.

If you have to drop out, or decided not to take part because it’s contrary to your thoughts about how writing should happen—well, I get that, too.