Caveat: Writers Must Revise
Let’s assume you accept my position from last week’s post that writers must revise their work. Exactly how do you make your shitty first draft better?
Many writers wish for a magic wand to wave over the pages or the keyboard. Sorry, but Harry Potter has moved on to bigger and better projects. I can’t even give you a single, quick-’n’-dirty operation that will do the trick. Because revision isn’t something you do when you finish writing. Revision is really another stage of writing, itself, and can’t be rushed or superseded—or as we saw last week, skipped.
Writing is Revision
Writing isn’t simply the act of spewing ideas from your brain and printing them onto paper. It is the art of choosing just the right words and arranging them into the most appropriate syntaxes and rhythms, and then organizing those ideas into just the right structure to accomplish your purpose and connect with and move your reader. Writing is revision.
So I can’t offer you a quick fix. What I can tender is the time-tested revision process loved by writing instructors everywhere: Revise, Edit, Proofread.
Revising Writing is Like Renovating a House
To help you understand how they work, the steps can be analogized to those of renovating a house—1) make major structural changes, 2) do the interior finishing work, and 3) send in the cleaning crew.
Step 1: Revision
Step 1 in the house renovation process means moving the walls around.
My friends Gail and Alan went through a revision process to finalize their home renovation blueprints. Although stunning, the plan the architect first presented would have cost more than they had budgeted. Undeterred, they moved this, deleted that, and changed something else until they wrestled the costs back in line. The reno went from two floors to one, with a decrease in the square footage and a substantial change in the configuration of the great room. Once the actual demolition began, the real physical changes could be seen.
Step 1 in your writing reno, Revision, deals with the large structural issues of your manuscript.
Confusingly called Revision like the entire process, it involves assessing whether you have achieved your purpose and adequately considered your audience; checking for smooth organization and flow; and considering whether you have enough detail and support. You may add, delete, or change characters, scenes, settings, or large sections of text; change the focus, direction, or intent of your narrative or poem; or change the point of view or narrative or character voices.
Revision may include:
- in fiction, cutting a scene that doesn’t further the plot or rewriting a section of dialogue so it better reflects a character’s personality
- in an essay, adding extra details to support your thesis or changing the thrust of your conclusion
- in poetry, making metaphors in a stanza follow a theme or changing sight imagery to sound
Once you’ve revised, you should be happy with the basics of your manuscript and move to Step 2.
Step 2: Editing
Step 2 in the house renovation process is going into that newly-framed structure and putting up wallboard and taping and spackling it; adding baseboard trim and crown moulding; laying carpet or flooring; installing cabinetry, lighting, fixtures, appliances, and hardware; and painting.
Although you might think that building the structure in Step 1 would be the most difficult, you can see how much is involved in this step. Imagine if your contractor glossed over some parts of interior finishing, considering them less important than the structural process—you could end up without a bathtub!
Step 2 in your writing reno, Editing, deals with the language issues of your manuscript.
Editing involves changes at the paragraph and sentence level. This is when you rewrite paragraphs and sentences to give them more interesting, varied structures and rhythms and to fix run-ons and fragments; substitute preferred vocabulary; cut verbiage and other clutter; add clarifications where text is unclear; and correct spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors including those in number, tense, or agreement.
Like house reno, although editing deals with smaller parts, it isn’t necessarily easier or less important. Similarly, just as you wouldn’t leave your bathroom reno without a bathtub, don’t leave your reader without a strong climax. (If you got the double entendre, then it was intended!)
Editing may include:
- in fiction, reordering paragraphs to add dramatic tension to a scene, revealing something shocking at the end
- in an essay, changing wording from passive to active voice to add power to your argument
- in poetry, changing over-used words for better imagery and texture
Once you’ve edited, you should be happy with what your manuscript says and how you say it and think you’re ready to publish. (You’re not.)
Step 3: Proofreading
The final step in home renovation is to send in the cleaning crew, who scrape excess paint from and wash windows; sweep and vacuum floors; clean sinks, toilets, tubs, counters and surfaces; polish light fixtures; and dispose of any debris.
The final step in your writing reno, Proofreading, deals with finding and fixing errors in your manuscript.
Proofreading involves changes at the word level. This is when you fix typos, add that missing comma, delete words mistakenly typed twice, take out extra spaces or add missing ones, fix capitalization and spelling errors, and make your hyphen use consistent.
If the other two steps in the revision process were important, this step is crucial—without it, your manuscript is doomed. Just as you wouldn’t consider inviting guests to use your renovated powder room without first cleaning the toilet, don’t even think of letting readers peruse your manuscript without first changing, “Dave, you’re horrible, fatter and I…” to something that won’t make your friend hate you forever—“Dave, your honorable father and I…”—and “That fart car” to the much better smelling, “That fast car.”
Proofreading may include, for example,
- in fiction, adding missing quotations marks to end a character dialogue
- in an essay, correcting improper use of e.g. to mean “that is,” making it i.e.
- in poetry, correcting inconsistent line spacing between stanzas
Once you’ve proofread, you should be ready to publish. (You’re not.)
There’s still one extra final super secret revision step. Ask someone else to proofread your manuscript to catch anything you might have missed. It’s also a good idea to put your paper away for a few days and then proofread it one more time yourself. Better to take the time to do one more pass than to be embarrassed by some stupid error. Never bee to busty to make your writing prefect for you’re reeders. Hapy revising!