Revise Until You Drop

On editing


in Beyond Words


All is completed, I said. You can rest and take delight in your accomplishment, I said. Except.

Except now you have to do it all over again.

Maybe not all of you. Maybe only most of you. There are, after all, those painstaking writers who meticulously go over each sentence as it appears and polish it until it has just the right glossiness and hint of darkness. When it is as smooth as a milkshake. When it dances or sings or claps.

But make no mistake: Almost all of us have to do all of it all over again.

You may start by running a spelling and grammar search on the file in your computer. The search will clean up a few typos. Which helps, but, sadly, not all that much. After all, this is simply housecleaning, and like housecleaning, you need to do it repeatedly, i.e., every time you add to or alter your piece. You must also read, reread, reread again, and then reread some more. Some readers suggest reading backwards from the last page, especially when what you have written is poetry. What are you looking for? The tiniest things imaginable: reversed quotation marks, for example, and words that lack needed power, or a comma that should be a semicolon, a question mark that should be a period. Check spellings for capitals and hyphens. Check military abbreviations. Check all other abbreviations. This, unfortunately, is not fun. This is tedious. And you may find yourself nearly hysterical with anxiety.

Cherry on Style

However, it is par for the course.

And there are the bigger things. Is your beginning too leisurely, too windy, too difficult to follow? How long does it take to get to the conflict? Is the conflict sufficiently interesting? Are your characters clearly delineated, and is the dialogue you’ve given them alive with energy or threat or suspense or affection, or is it dead on the page? Throw out anything unnecessary. That, of course, is easy for me to say, but only you know what is necessary and what is not, so you have to make the decisions. In yet another revision, you may discover that your first decision was wrong. That’s how it goes. You may have to change the climax. You may decide to shorten or lengthen the ending.

But there is at least one blessing in all this. Unlike a painter who revises her painting, you still have your original piece at hand. You can always return to it. The sculptor’s sculpture will likely be destroyed in a revision. A cook who revises may or may not wreck dinner (or discover something edible and heavenly). But the writer is the lucky artist here. A million revisions and the previous versions will still be available. Consequently, revision is sometimes rather like patching — patching this to that, tearing out this bit, roughing in something else. Yet you can always return to previous drafts (your finished piece, of course, has now turned into or back into a draft) to relocate yourself or remind yourself of what still needs to be done.

So be happy about that.

Or you may feel you need to reroute your piece sentence by sentence or scene by scene. In that case, do what Eudora Welty did: cut it up into pieces, sit at the table or on the bed or the floor, or, if you can balance yourself and your materials well enough, in a rocking chair and tape the cut-ups — those words you feel are necessary — on a piece of blank paper. You have a new version of your work. You will find it clarifying. You will find it useful.

Perhaps these suggestions seem elementary. You’ve been reading books that explore mighty subjects from the bottom up. Why are we talking about cutting and taping? Isn’t it pretty pathetic for us to be doing what kids in kindergarten do?

No, it is not pathetic. It is intelligent.

If you are unsure whether the “events” you’ve written are in their proper places in your piece, lay out your scenes around the dining room table. Walk around the table several times. This, too, is clarifying.

Have friends read it and ask them to point to wherever they get confused. Of course, this is easier to do when you are young because soon enough all the people you know will be older and too busy to take time from their own work. A very good friend or former teacher will be willing to devote time and energy on your behalf, but you must not take advantage of it. After all, the older writer is busy trying to complete whatever he is working on. You must respect that. You owe him that.

Now let us look at the larger picture. William Zinsser, in his excellent book On Writing Well, which is in its seventh edition, observed that “rewriting is the essence of writing well ’ where the game is won or lost.” That word well is crucial. Writing badly will profit no one: not yourself, not the publisher, not literature. I know this, having myself written a few bad books, most of them, thank goodness, unpublished, but at least one published. (I have also written some good ones, but bad books poison, even kill careers. I also know from personal experience that writing a review that is not an outright rave is dangerous. Powerful people — people with connections to publishers and newspapers — are vicious enough to counterattack, even though you did not think you were attacking anybody.) Zinsser also thought good writing was necessarily economical writing. I would say that economical writing is the safest writing, but Tolstoy, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Bellow et al. wrote full-throated, long-ranging fiction that still resounds in our heads and hearts. In other words, take even Zinsser with a grain of salt, and think through these matters on your own.

Zinsser defines “revision” thusly:

Revision literally means to “see again,” to look at something from a fresh, critical perspective. It is an ongoing process of rethinking the paper: reconsidering your arguments, reviewing your evidence, refining your purpose, reorganizing your presentation, reviving stale prose.

When you revise, you subject yourself to new understandings of what you are writing. You are, remember, creating a world, whether it is an enormous world or a very small one, a midget. You want to be able to see it as clearly as you see Venus in the early evening sky. Proportion, information, dialogue, description, narrative, sentences, lines, words — all these are foundational to your work.

If you were to change your first-person piece to second- or third-person, would it work better? If you were to change the past tense to the present tense or even the future tense (I have a future-tense story titled Her Life to Come; poet Billy Collins christened it “the prophetic imperative”), would it work better?

If you were to write it from a dog’s point of view — a suggestion from Antonya Nelson, novelist and short-story writer — would it work better? (In fact, it is not all that unusual to write from a dog’s point of view. Dogs are smart, feelingful, and observant of humans.)

Nelson is also the author of “Short Story: A Process of Revision,” published in the Tin House blog. Tin House is a modish literary magazine with current cachet. The article is somewhat stuffed, or baroque, but it is definitely worth your time. •

Images courtesy of bobistraveling via Flickr (Creative Commons).