And Now It Begins: What Revision Really Means

Post Date: May 23rd, 2010


“The first draft reveals the art, revision reveals the artist.”

— Michael Lee

So bearing my bound draft like a trophy, I embarked on my writers’ retreat yesterday…and met my maker.

I looked myself in the mirror (my writing, all 212 single-spaced pages and 105,000 + words), and while I didn’t groan, I had to wrestle with my work style and try something new.

The challenge is overcoming my nitpicking tendencies. At this stage of revision, I have to think globally. I need to look for trends and themes; I have to follow narrative structure and the plot’s obstacles and conflicts; I have to see if the crisis is truly a crisis. I have to see if characters who are introduced are fully realized, or are just landscape or even annoyances to the reader.

I’m not a global thinker when it comes to my writing. My strongest urge is to start slashing on page 1–finding synonyms, removing phrases, and tweaking little, little things. And before I know it, two hours have passed and I’ve made it to, wow, page 5?

This kind of work takes forever.

Reading globally is a way for an author to mimic what actual readers do. Our readers don’t carry microscopes or red pens (though I will tell you that this biography of Michael Jackson has so many proofreading errors, I’ve been tempted to pull out the pen). Reading globally helps you see if a reader wants to turn the page because the plot momentum is strong. It helps you see if the character who started one way on page 5 has evolved naturally and believably by page 55.

So, here’s how I handled my anal self yesterday: along with the draft I brought a legal pad and pen, and I told myself with great resolution that I would read and write nothing on the manuscript. I would only write general concerns on the legal pad. I would tell myself, Don’t worry, you’ll get to nitpick next round, I promise.

This resolution is to protect the work and me. The last novel became mired in the nitpicking, and I will not go there again.

So, I made it to page 93 this way, with only some lapses. If I got a date blatantly wrong, I had to write on the manuscript. I’d also neglected to number my pages, so that took some minutes getting straight, because when I found a problem, I had to mark where it occurred on my legal pad. And sometimes, there would be a line of purple prose so brilliantly purple, shiny like an eggplant, that I had to squash it, right there. Then I’d catch myself and put the cigarette/drink, I mean, pen, back on the counter. Back away from the pen….

I kept telling myself as the urge strengthened to rip up pages with my pen, Trust. Trust you’ll remember what’s wrong when you get back to editing.

The other caution was, You can nitpick it to death right now, but what if you end up removing whole chapters and writing new sections? What good will this nitpicking do then?

But last night, I couldn’t resist. I spent about an hour slashing. Old habits, yup. But today, back to global reading. I need to read the whole novel by sundown.

Then, I’ve got a week to enter these edits, which limits how much slashing I can do, and from what little I’ve done, I’m thinking I can remove several pages. Then it will be camera ready for real readers. And that will be due to a combination of global and local revision.

It’s on!

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary Prompts:

— Finish this sentence with 25 more words: My very worst habit is… Then finish this sentence with 25 more words: I can try to change this habit by…
— Imagine you are in a space station floating above Earth. You look down, and you see — what? Oh, wow, you have to write what’s happening! Tell us what you see that you can only see from the space station!
— Now tell the same story as someone who is standing on Earth. How do you find out about what’s happening? How is what you see different–or very different–from what is seen from the space station?
— What is the thing about your writing you wish you could change, right now? What part of your writing do you not want to change? Why?
— Name two people besides a teacher whom you think you can show your writing, and they will give you positive and helpful comments. Who do you trust to show your writing, and why? What do they tell you?
— Finish this story: I had just written a great story. People wanted to read it because…

Secondary & Adult Prompts:

— Finish this sentence with 25 more words: My very worst habit is… Then finish this sentence with 25 more words: I can try to change this habit by…
— Imagine you are in a space station floating above Earth. You have the global view of Earth. You look down, and you see — what? Tell us what you see that you can only see from the space station. Use as much sensory description as you can.
— Now tell the same story as someone who is standing on Earth. How do you find out about what’s happening? How is what you see different–or very different–from what is seen from the space station?
— What is the thing about your writing you wish you could change, right now? What part of your writing do you not want to change? Why?
— Your writing has global changes you can make and local changes you can make. Global changes involve ideas and structure (the thesis or argument, the organization, the characters), and local changes involve small edits (spelling, grammar, diction). Talk about one global change you would like to make and one local change.
— You have just finished a piece of writing you are proud of. You have assembled a group of people you can trust to give you a fair and honest critique — a balance of compliments and criticisms. Write the dialogue that ensues.
— Finish this story: I had just written a powerful tale. The buzz was everywhere: read this story because…

4 Comments

  1. Go with the flow the first time – as you said, you can nitpick later!

  2. bobmust says:

    You touch on one of the traps of editing here, Lyn. Nitpicking, i.e., fooling with the minutiae of a manuscript seems safe – the text your creative juices gave you aren’t threatened.

    But if you start lopping paragraphs or chapters, moving things around, your inner creator gets rather unsettled. Then it’s time for a negotiating chat with the storyteller inside you.

    My way out of that trap is to imagine I’m in a group of the most exacting critiquers I’ve been around, and let them scream at me as I begin to read my m/s. Sometimes I yell back, but it works – and it’s never humdrum!

  3. Yes, trusting one can nitpick later is key. Trust. And Bob, you mention safety. I love the “way out of that trap.” Tell me, what are they screaming? 🙂

    And you inspired a writing prompt!

  4. bobmust says:

    They’re yelling “Don’t be stupid, writer!! Ego! Ego! Get out of the way, ego!”