How to revise your story

I was going to give this one a snappy title, but then I thought, no, let’s keep it simple. We need to revise our work. Oh boy, do we ever. But from what I’ve seen from writing and teaching and helping to run a writer’s conference, it’s easy to fall into bad habits.

You know the ones I’m talking about: piecemeal and half-baked fiddling, focusing endlessly on word choice rather than story.

This post won’t focus on what makes a good story (and how to revise from that standpoint) but rather the process of revision and how process can lead us astray. First, an overview of to-do and not-to-do:

In Short.

Do:

  1. Write reasonably quickly.
  2. Create a method to add notes to your story.
  3. Use a critique group as well as several trusted beta readers.
  4. Let manuscript rest.
  5. Use strategies and tricks to gain distance.
  6. Rewrite for structure, sense, depth, simplicity and style.

Do not:

  1. Keep rereading your manuscript.
  2. Line edit your work over and over.
  3. Give away your power to others.

What not to do.

First, let’s consider what not to do. Let’s stop once and for all rereading and line editing the work in progress (WIP).

Sometimes–let’s be frank–we’re not even revising, we’re just reading our draft work to “see how it flows.” All this rereading of our ms. leads to what I call revision blindness when through repetition we become too familiar with our work to give it the rewrite it needs later.

We’re rereading the chapters in progress for the third time and doing a quick edit at the same time because it is easier than creating new material. It appears productive, but it’s not. You needed new pages today. And you got two instead of five because you’re fiddling with things.

There’ll be a time for revising, and that’s after you finish the first draft. If you absolutely must change stuff, okay. Maybe you want to revise the WIP a couple times when you make a significant plot change or to capitalize on a new understanding of your character. Just don’t obsess. It doesn’t need to be perfect.

Stop line editing your WIP. Stop fiddling with metaphors, taking out adverbs, blocking some action into dialogue and fussing with commas. Later! It can wait. Okay, you’re going to read for your writing group tonight. Pencil in a few improvements, then let it go. Don’t let your writing group become The Must Impress Editor in the Sky. For more on writing group critiques, my post: You Can’t Give it Away.

If you don’t follow that link, here’s the main point: As a writer you must learn to take firm responsibility for altering your story. Even if an influential reader or everyone in the writing group wants a change, don’t start to doubt your own instincts if you think they’re wrong. No one knows your story’s kernel like you do. Beware the odd, dark  power of group think.

A better revision.

Here is the process that may be harder, less intuitive, but will likely lead you to a  more meaningful story (and a smoother one).

Write quickly. We bypass the critical, soul sucking editor when we write reasonably quickly, accessing our story telling instincts. This approach steers you into the unfolding drama instead of the surface details. So at this point, we are not revising. Finish the first draft, keeping rewriting to a decent minimum.

Create a method for notes. We need to capture insights that point us to the future rewrite. Find the one that works best for you, such as penciling them into your scene/chapter list or use the Bookmark function (in Word under “Insert”) and also use the Comment function (also under “Insert”) that allows you to capture revision ideas like “make Claire more skeptical here” or “add sensual detail.” You can see that noting your insights as such, rather than changing the ms. right then will maintain your momentum and discourage endless word juggling.

Beta readers and critique groups. These are indispensable, but keep them as back up to your own judgement. Seek readers who are at the highest level you can reasonably ask for. This doesn’t mean that you ask a published writer to read your work. They don’t have time for the many requests they get. But do seek out avid readers or fellow writers with good experience.

Let manuscript rest. After you have a finished first draft, your goal should be to gain distance from the story. A couple months is ideal. You need this distance because the story lives on in your head, and when you read a two-familiar manuscript, you will unwittingly insert your knowledge and emotional connection. The problem is that it won’t be on the page, and you will be blind to this. The urge to read your manuscript and imagine it as a book will be very strong. Put large rubber bands around the finished pages. Make it a little hard to get to. Be strong. Read this paragraph again.

If the siren song of your manuscript seduces you, then rewrite it in the way that you feel you must. Then put it away for two months. One month minimum, but more please, if possible.

Tricks for distance. When you are finally in true revision mode, find ways to make your manuscript new to you. Read it aloud. It will come across differently to you, and that’s good! Use a different font and space one and half. Shorten line length by increasing your margins.

Rewrite for structure, sense, depth, simplicity and style. That’s a whole other post, but notice that in that devilish little sentence I put structure first. Write and insert new scenes, cut ineffective ones, look for story arc and dramatic turning point scenes. The structural aspect is the hardest part of revision, so it’s the one we are most likely to short change in our rush to smooth out the prose.

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