This is a great question! I’m surprised nobody has asked it yet.
Revision is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of courage, chutspah, and balls/ovaries of solid granite to rip something to shreds after you slaved over it for months. But it is a necessary part of the writing process and to skip it is to say good-bye to your dreams of publication. Why?
Because first drafts blow.
Seriously. There is no such thing as a perfect first draft. It is a mythical creature native to the magical land of Wishfulthinkia. I don’t care if your name is Virginia Woolf and you can spout better prose in your sleep while wearing a mouth retainer than most authors will write in their lifetime. Your first drafts still suck.
And that’s why we revise. So stop arguing with me and just do it. Now, without further ado, here are some things I think writers should keep in mind before they dive into their revisions:
- No change is permanent. You can try a particular scene nine different ways before deciding on which way works best. You can change a character as many times as you want and eventually go back to the first iteration. So if you’re terrified that something new will actually be worse than what you had in the first place, fear not. You are not locked into any changes you make. You have no excuse not to try something crazy or experimental.
- No one is reading over your shoulder. It’s just you and the words on the page. So don’t be afraid or embarrassed to try something freaky. If it doesn’t work out, no one has to know it happened. No one has to know that you named a character “Dr. Sexy” for 78 pages before you picked a name for him.
- Save each draft as a separate document. Not only is it smart to make back-ups, but if you delete something that you end up wanting to keep, you will have only to go back and pluck it from an earlier draft. Some authors even start writing the next draft from scratch, rather than copying and pasting from the original.
- Join a workshop/get a writing buddy/hire an editor. Outside feedback is essential to the writing process. If you’re writing in a vacuum, you will have no idea if your story actually works for an audience, or if it’s just an echo chamber of stuff you like. Writing buddies will also help identify flaws that you never noticed because after reading your own work seventeen times, it starts to look like ancient Aramaic. Don’t make the mistake of hiding away in your basement for draft after private draft. Get feedback after every draft, or even after every chapter of a single draft.
- Don’t ignore feedback just because you don’t like it. In fact, if you recoil in horror at a particular bit of advice, that’s a sign that you should probably examine it further. Question why you react to certain advice. And if you find that you only accept advice that sounds nice, well then you’re a spineless coward who should have her word processor taken away.
- Work on a schedule. Writing and revising is work. Act like it. Schedule regular breaks and commit to set time periods in which you will work on your writing. Not only will this make you more serious about the revision process, it’ll help you avoid needless procrastination.
- “Kill your darlings.” If you’ve ever read a single blog or book about the art of writing, you’ve heard this one. For the uninitiated: it means you need to be willing to sacrifice parts of the story that you love or that you worked really hard on in order to benefit the story as a whole. Really like that random flashback you wrote about Dr. Sexy’s time in med school, but it doesn’t actually provide any insight into the character or further the plot of the book? Cut it. Just love that plucky sidekick who is actually pretty useless and only serves to muck up already dense conversations? Give ‘em the axe. Then forget about them. Your story will be better for it.
- There’s no such thing as “perfect,” only “good enough.” You’re never going to get it exactly right. That way lies madness. But you can get close. And that’s what you should be shooting for. If you embrace perfectionism, you’re never going to get the damn thing in the hands of a publishing house. You’ll just be revising till the day you die.
- There is a difference between revising and copyediting and you should not do them at the same time. I know it’s hard to ignore typos in your work. You want to correct them as soon as you come upon them. To resist is painful. But you know what? Don’t. The process of editing naturally flows from the macro to the micro. Start with the big-picture editing: rewriting scenes, adding characters, revising whole conversations, changing the ending. Then work your way steadily down to the nit-picky edits: consistency of character names, making sure you’ve got your timeline straight, making sure your geography makes a lick of sense. Next work on your prose: making it sound pretty and poetic, using your writing tone to reflect the mood of a particular scene. Then and only then can you start editing for spelling, grammar, and syntax. If you start out by copyediting you’ll be wasting time in two ways: 1) You’ll be spending extra time reading line by line to catch errors that you could spend reworking the meat of the story, and 2) You run the risk of perfectly editing a chapter only to realize you need to rewrite 90% of it. So resist the urge to copyedit when you start revising.
- “But that’s how it happened in real life”/“But that’s how I first imagined it” is no excuse for shitty writing. The truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense. So if the plot seems far-fetched, or if it strains belief, or if your readers say it just doesn’t make any fucking sense, don’t be afraid to change it. In fact, you must change it. I don’t care how sentimentally attached you are to the original version. The exception to this rule is of course nonfiction, in which you should never deviate from the facts because that is called lying.
I now open it up to the whole class: what do you guys keep in mind before you start revising your manuscripts? How do you prepare for the arduous task?