Revision is next to godliness

To write is human, to edit is divine

Stephen King 

As much as I’d love to say that a perfect piece of prose can be obtained from a first draft, the truth of the matter is that good writing lays within the revision, editing, proofreading and analysis of a piece. Like a good curry, a well rounded piece of writing needs time to develop its own character, brew and settle. The following strategies may prove useful as you revise your next piece of writing.

  • Give it time. Revision over time will assist in organising your piece, ensuring that the theme and message you intended to share shines clearly. Even a few hours will give you a fresh perspective and draw you away from being too close to your work.
  • Start at the Start. Evaluate your introduction, ensuring that it grabs the readers attention, forms strong images or evokes the senses in order to draw interest.
  • Check the structure. Assess how you have organised your storyline and ensure that it leads your reader through a clear line of images and thoughts. Check you have done more show than tell!
  • Surf with the flow. If readers have to struggle up your stream of consciousness, its likely they will drown. Make it easy for your readers by creating smooth transitions and segues between paragraphs and interactions between characters.
  • Remove repetitive or habitual language structures. Particularly with flash fiction, every word must fight for its right to stay within the story. Every writer is guilty of favourite phrases and repetitive details. Revise any word repetition within sentences, replacing with alternative images or ways of expressing these ideas.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness. In a few words, write the theme or message of your work down on a separate piece of paper. Re-read your story and review its effectiveness in expressing this theme or message. Where could it be boosted? Where does it fall short of delivering?
  • Proofread. After you have made your initial content alterations, use a spellchecker to catch the errors and slowly read your work out loud to find grammar and syntax faults.  Printing your piece out will identify spelling and spacing errors quickly. 

Revision literally means to “see again” or to look at it from a new perspective. It’s an ongoing, organic methodology which gets easier with practice and experience.

Rewriting is the essence of writing well—where the game is won or lost.

William Zinsser 

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Improve Your Revision Process with Beta Reading

As writers, we tend to focus a lot on the writing – the actual act of creating our worlds and characters and plot twists. But we all know that writing includes much more than that.  Sure, we have to get the story down on the page and if we don’t do that none of the rest matters. But once the story is down and you’ve written The End at the bottom, what’s next?  Is the story done? Unless you have the gift of perfect spelling, grammar, structure, typing, storytelling, dialogue development, world building (etc. etc.), The End is only The Beginning.

Editing and revision are key parts of the writing process. For me, and probably for a lot of other people, this is the dreaded part of writing. I freely admit that I am a wordy writer.  A very wordy writer at that.  I consider this to be part of the “charm” of my writing, but when I’m looking at it from a distance I can see it as a flaw just as easily.  That said, when I’m working on a story, I will go through it several times after writing The End, checking for grammar and word order, checking for any blatant errors like characters whose name changes mid-way through the story, or problems that are presented but not solved within the story. I will read it silently without making any changes.  I’ll read it out loud to listen to the flow of dialogue (I do this often with prose and always with scripts).  I’ll shrink the screen down so that I can see one line at a time and read each letter and punctuation mark for technical accuracy. (OK, maybe I get a little crazy sometimes with the editing). I do all of this before anyone else sees the manuscript and sometimes before anyone even hears that I’ve been writing it.

But at some point, I cannot edit anymore but I know it isn’t “finished”.  You know the time – right when the coffee runs out, the feeling of doubt and self-loathing sets in and you are certain this work is the most dreadful piece of garbage ever written. It is usually at this point, when I’ve spent a lot of time on a piece and am ready to click the delete key to permanently remove it from existence, that I decide it’s time for another set of eyes.  What I’ve learned over the years is that sometimes it is best to let the story go for a brief foray out of the nest, to see if it is ready to fly.  Sometimes you can’t “finish” a story because it is, in fact, already done; other times you can’t finish it because it needs some changes all the way back at the beginning. While the piece may truly be the worst piece of drivel ever written, it usually is not and it just takes someone else’s eyes to see it. Beta readers can help with getting the piece from the “drifting in the wind” stage to the “soaring with the eagles” stage.

Beta reading is a partnership between an author and a small set of trusted readers who are, quite often, also authors.  It allows you to get feedback from readers who are asked to go through your work and provide direct, honest and sometimes difficult-to-hear comments. When working with a beta reader, there are some key tips I’ve found to make the partnership more successful:

  1. Know what you want and when you want it.  It’s important to know what you expect from your beta readers and even more important to communicate it to them. Your beta readers also need to know the turn-around time you expect. Life is busy and things get pushed aside all the time, so it is important that everyone knows up-front what the expectations are. In general, the beta reader’s job is to provide feedback about what works, what doesn’t work and what could be done differently. Sometimes it is an idea exchange – I’ve taken the story as far as I can on my own, now I need someone else to tell me what I can do to make it better. Giving the beta reader an idea as to what you are looking for, be it a thorough, line-by-line editing, general thoughts on the plot and characters or ideas for how to rework a particular scene, helps to ensure a successful collaboration – which ultimately will help to ensure a successful story.
  2. Feedback will, sometimes, be conflicting.  When utilizing more than one beta reader (I recommend no more  than five), you will often (read: usually) get conflicting feedback.  One reader may absolutely love a line while another hates it.  One reader may think you need your character to drink coffee while another thinks they should only drink tea.  While this may be frustrating and hard to navigate, you need to understand that when your story goes out to broader audiences it will face this same situation.  The “you can’t please everyone” concept is important to remember, but you cannot hide behind it. If your beta readers are conflicted on a section of your story, you should review it and see if there is a reason for this.  Perhaps the section is confusing or unbelievable.  Perhaps it is extraneous and needs to be cut.  It may very well be a case where a concept is familiar to you but not to readers from another area of the world.  Getting this feedback early, before the story goes out to the whole world, can help avoid confusion.  Finally, if you don’t understand a comment from a reader, ask for clarification!
  3. Remember that you are the author. You should never expect a beta reader to re-write your story for you; feedback, suggestions, ideas and even line-editing are all fair game, but ultimately the beta reader can only be expected to provide assistance and guidance, not to actually fix it. That’s your job!  Feedback from beta readers is nothing more than a set of data points which you can use to determine where to focus your revision and editing efforts.
  4. It’s not about you. When I get negative feedback, I feel like someone kicked me in the gut. “He didn’t like that so clearly he hates me.”  Ultimately, it is important to have a thick skin when reviewing feedback from beta readers. Whether they love or hate your story, it is not a reflection on you—it is a reflection of that specific reader’s interpretation of that specific story.
  5. Thank your readers promptly. Whether you like the feedback or not, whether you’ll use it or not, thank your beta readers for taking time out of their lives to help. They don’t have to do this!  Even if you don’t have time to review the feedback immediately, at least acknowledge that you received it.  It will go a long way toward the reader being willing to help you out the next time.

Beta readers have responsibilities in this partnership, too:

  1. Understand the author’s expectations. Before offering to do a beta read, you need to be sure you can commit the time to do it within the author’s stated deadline. You have to be sure of what the author expects and that you are willing to do it. If you don’t understand what the author wants, ask! If the author did not tell you what they want, ask! If you don’t ask, you may end up wasting a lot of time.  In terms of investment, I can’t say how long it will take you, but for me, I’ve had some 1500 word pieces take 15 minutes to review and comment on and I’ve had other 1500 word pieces take several hours; it depends on just how much work there was to do. I usually read a story four or five times before sending it back to the author — I put notes in as I read it the first time, then update or remove them as my familiarity with the story improves.

I cannot emphasize this item enough – I was just asked to beta read a piece and the author set his expectations about it, but he did not include the length. Thankfully, I asked.  It is a 54,000 word book.  Looking at my schedule, there simply is not enough time for me to do the job on a piece of that length, so I had to decline (much as I wanted to accept).  If I can’t give it my all as a beta reader, I’m not helping the author.

  • Look past the author’s opinion. Often, the author will explain in the cover letter that the story you are about to read is not up to his normal quality (read: it stinks) or is the best combination of words ever to grace the page.  You need to be able to see past the author’s opinion so you can go into the reading with an open mind.  Otherwise, you’ll end up only seeing the flaws or highlights the author pointed out.
  • Be prepared to give difficult feedback. Beta reading is not easy, but sometimes it is really, really difficult.  As the beta reader, you have to be prepared to give feedback in a constructive and supportive way, even if your feedback is negative.  You need to be prepared for the possibility that you will thoroughly dislike the piece.  I tend to try to be thorough with my comments, explaining what I like or dislike and why, along with providing possible expansions or changes that I feel might make the story better. I’ve had to tell authors they needed to start over or that they had critical structural or technical flaws in the plot which needed to be addressed. Sometimes I’ve had very little to do – the story is complete and well done. Believe it or not, this feedback is actually harder for me because I worry I’m providing little-to-no benefit to the author by saying “Good job!” Of course, if it is good and complete, then that’s all there is to say. Whatever the feedback is, the key thing is to explain it.  If you don’t understand a sentence or phrase, say so. It may simply be that you don’t have the referential experience needed to understand it. It may be that the wording needs improvement to be understood more easily. It is better if you don’t merely say “I don’t like this bit” – take the time to explain why and, if possible, suggest an alternative.
  • Remember that you are not the author. Sometimes I want to just fix it – rework a section to make it better. But I can’t.  It’s not my job as the beta reader.  This doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes write an example paragraph or two to try to make my opinion clearer but ultimately all of my feedback is merely a set of suggestions the author has the right to ignore or use at their discretion.
  • Having done so many beta readings now, I can honestly say that it has made me a better writer. I have been able to learn more about what I like and what I don’t like about stories and have been able to apply this to my own writing.  This makes beta reading a win-win situation. Have you worked with beta readers, or been a beta reader yourself?  What was your experience doing this? If you haven’t gone down the beta reading path, I highly recommend it.

The Only Way Revision Works (For Me)

keep-calm-and-revise-revise-revise-4We talk a lot about the rituals and habits of writing.  It’s the same for just about every blog, website, magazine or class that I’ve had experience with.  What time of day should we write?  Do you write every day?  Do you journal?  Don’t edit while you write.  Write by hand.  Don’t write by hand.  Caffeine precedes inspiration.  And so on.  And so on.

There are powerful reasons for this focus.  The processes of inspiration and creation are hard to talk about because the act of creation has never been well-understood.  So we talk—sometimes, talk to death—the minutiae that surround the process, because it’s too scary to tackle the real issue head on.

However, more often than not, advice surrounding the process of revision sounds remarkably similar to the instructions on a shampoo bottle….Revise.  Repeat.

Revision is never that easy.  Any writer who’s ever clashed with their editor, but had trouble expressing the reasons for their objections can attest to that.  Likewise, how many of us have moved a paragraph or two earlier in the manuscript, only to move it back when we second guess ourselves—only to move it back again…and so on?

While revising is not, strictly speaking a creative process, there is undeniably a creative aspect to it.  After all, revision is not just removing.  If you decide that a certain scene needs a little more detail—or more emotion—to feel genuine, you have to create that detail.   But the analytical aspect is at least as important.  It takes experience and judgment to know what’s going wrong in your story.  It naturally follows that if revision is partially a creative process, you may still need some of those same tools you use to create.

In the last year, as I analyzed my creative process, I’ve learned about my revision process as well.  I write by hand.  Maybe it’s because I learned to write just before computers were everywhere, but I’m just more creative with a pen than I am with a keyboard.  Then I use the process typing my story into the computer to revise.   But in the last year I’ve learned I have an extra step.  My first revision works best on paper.  I’d rather move a paragraph by circling a paragraph and drawing an arrow to its new location than by using my word processor’s cut-and-paste.  It’s just easier for me to read through it and try the story out both ways.  It’s less permanent.  It’s less of a decision and more of a question.  Then, when it’s time to type it into the computer I’ll make my choices.

I write better at night, but I edit better right after work—maybe because my job is analytical.  I write better in slightly-noisy venues like coffeehouses and restaurants, but I edit better in comparative quiet—maybe a radio or TV playing softly in the background.

What about you?  Have you ever thought about how you edit?  Do you know what works for you and what doesn’t?  Let us know in the comments below…

The Fear Chronicles: Pride and Petulance, or Get Out of My Rose Garden

Teaching basic composition over the last couple of years, I have noticed that editing and revising are not necessarily built into students’ timeframes. The rough draft is the thing that needs to be done, and if the rough draft is the final draft, then so be it. Revision seems to be the luxury of far less busy folks. Revision is for students who have nothing better to do than scour their essays for errant commas, whilst eating bonbons beneath a lazily turning fan (I’m getting all kinds of Tennessee Williams images here). Or so I imagine. Why else would some of my students’ work be riddled with grammatical errors, sense errors, spelling mistakes, and a deluge of vying fonts?

Revision is a strange process. I would hazard to say that each writer’s revision process is as unique as his/her writing style itself. While for some revision might seem like the enjoyable, last step (once all the heavy lifting of the rough draft is done), this is not the way many other writers feel. In fact, revision generates some pretty passionate, and even volatile, reactions.

Tiffany Madison, journalist and fiction writer, says “While writing is like a joyful release, editing is a prison where the bars are my former intentions and the abusive warden my own neuroticism.”

Stephen King tells us, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Don Roff, author and filmmaker, says, “I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”

And finally, Nick Hornby, novelist, suggests this: “Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune, and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress…”

Let’s take a moment and think about the diction used in these quotes to describe editing/revising: prison, abusive, kill, rip, chop, hack, prune. All incredibly violent words. All incredibly invasive. For these writers, the first draft was the joy, and the subsequent drafts were varying versions of suffering.

My mother used to say to me that I was a perfect rose garden, but I just needed to be pruned; by which she meant, I had flaws, and she would root them out. Of course I was resistant to this metaphor. Might this be the way writers feel about having their work edited by an external editor? Might this be the way we feel about ourselves when we self-edit?

In thinking about revising my own work, I find that I vacillate between being petulant about the revision process and excited that my poetry is improving before my eyes with each additional read-through. The petulance emerges, I think, because I think about those writers who either reject editing altogether (Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” approach or Anne Rice’s emphatic rejection of outside editors: “I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself . . .”) or those who seemed to reject editing (in this case, I’m thinking about some famous poets whose recent works seemed less edited, less tightly constructed, and yet as equally praised as earlier works). Either way, it’s an unhelpful petulance, because what I’m doing then is comparing my work with work that I don’t particularly like. Why should that be my yardstick?

In returning to my earlier question about my students and their seeming lack of revision, maybe I should consider that they, too, might feel somewhat petulant. And not only that, but somewhat exposed and nervous. No one wants to “rip,” “kill,” “hack” their work. In teaching my students, maybe what I should be focusing on is getting them over this hump of whatever it is: petulance, nervousness, frustration . . . pride.

Maybe pride has more to do with revision than I originally thought. Don’t we all want to create something perfectly birthed from our minds, with no need for pruning? And if we don’t, does that say something about our own abilities?

Maybe we think it does, but it shouldn’t. I think the only way over this hump for any of us, whether for my students, or for myself, is to get beyond the pride and the petulance a few times, and to see the other side of a well-edited poem, essay, short story. Experiencing the satisfaction of a polished piece of writing enough times might make us more inclined to embrace the self- or external editor.

I am reminded of a part in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (one of the seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis), in which Eustace, a particularly petulant and sulky boy, is turned into a dragon. Of course, he can’t stay a dragon, but he doesn’t know how to unchange himself. Eventually, Aslan (a great lion and Christ-like figure), painfully and slowly peels off Eustace’s dragon flesh, until Eustace is himself again, but fresh and new. Less sulky. Less petulant.

We must learn to embrace this change in our writing from something clunky, rough, awkward to something tighter, more polished, more graceful. The process may still be painful, but on the other side is better writing, plain and simple.