Writing Adv*ce: Revising

Revising is one of the most important aspects of writing. It’s also the most unsexy, and the hardest to explain (and by explain I mean “gain sympathy”).

You have your first draft done. Could be your second. Could be your fifth. Every project is different, every format is different, every writer is different. No one’s judging here. The thing is, you know it’s missing stuff, or, the stuff that’s there that isn’t missing is maybe not as well communicated as could be. Or it’s out of order. Or confusing.

So, you hit ⌘-P and print that bastard out (preferably on recycled paper, if possible). You grab a pen and go through line by line and find all the guilty suspects — the lazy punctuation, the nebulous internalized dialogue, the parts that should sing but don’t — and you mark it up, complete with thoughts/notes/feelings for future reference.A stylistic photograph of a writing desk, with laptop, notebook, and print outs

The next step is sitting down and implementing those revision notes into the current draft on your computer. Some people might just use the marked up print out as their Bible. I go one step further and re-read from scratch, making changes on my laptop as I go *and then* check the printed copy to see if I’ve missed anything. It’s tedious as fuck (especially on on a novel FML) but it tends to balance, for lack of a better way of putting it, the zealotry that can come with revising on paper. It’s easy to sit with a print out and a pen and go revisit this and skip that. The truth is that sometimes our sentiment during that process can be impatient and ill-judged, which is why I like to re-read and see whether I decide to leave things in that have a way of justifying their existence on second glance.

When you’re revising you’re having a dialogue with yourself. It’s a little different than the dialogue you have when writing new stuff. New stuff is new. It’s sexy and glows and makes us feel good, and we’re happy when we’re able to empty it onto the page, so volume — even if it’s garbled — always feels like striking a gold mine. When we’re revising we step back and attempt to look at what we’ve written within the context of the whole project. The hardest part of revising, for me, is the trifocal quality of how we are reading the text — approaching it as the ideal reader, approaching it as the editor, approaching it as a total stranger. Does it hold our attention? Does the paragraph work within the chapter or am I just trying to shoehorn a smart-sounding insight that simply isn’t meant for this particular project.

Sometimes we don’t know. Sometimes it’s something we’ve been working on for years and we feel like we’ve lost perspective. Does it rock? Does it suck? Does it read like I’ve shoved my head up my ass? It can be difficult to tell when we’re too close. Add some insecurity to that and revising can feel interminable. This is when you take a break (I’m talking days if not weeks).

But here’s the thing: revising is where your piece finds both its soul and its feet on the ground. Greatness is made in the revision process. First drafts are necessary evils. If you are starting out and feel that your first draft is perfect, you’re likely going to need to adjust your perspective. And it’s hard, right, because it’s so easy to construe the weaknesses that an editor or reader might find in our work with the insecurities we might have with ourselves.

If writing was just that — literally just writing new material — then things would be much different. They would be worse. We wouldn’t learn what our bad habits are, we wouldn’t have that opportunity, when we feel we’ve hit a wall during revisions on a particularly hard chapter, to realize how we might alter things so that it finally works the way we originally wanted it to.

Revising is learning. And again, it is a dialogue with yourself. Be supportive. Don’t forget to mark up the stuff you like! Don’t forget to tell yourself what’s funny, or what’s particularly poignant. In many ways, revising mirrors the relationship we have with ourselves, so watch the trash talk. Accept that you are fallible. Everyone’s first draft looks like dog food. Be patient.

Just some thoughts.

(And kindly note a couple of things: I’m speaking specifically about fiction and creative non-fiction; other formats might require other approaches or appreciate different philosophies. And a golden rule: what works best for you is what’s most important.)