A while back at a writer’s group meeting, revision became a hot topic of discussion. “How do you know when you’re ready to send something out to a publisher?” one of our members asked. “I’ve revised this piece so many times already….I’m just not sure.” There were knowing nods around the table. We’d all faced similar moments of indecision.
Since then I’ve kept track of the revision methods that I use. I discovered that mine was a scattergun approach, built on the premise that if you fling enough at a target something will eventually stick. Mostly I revised on the go and tinkered as the piece evolved. In the final stages, I shuffled words around, pruned when necessary, and added a bit of spit polish until I was satisfied with the product. There was little logic to my method.
For help, I turned to several books on writing and I made a conscious effort to be more strategic in my approach. I came up with a five-step plan for myself that, so far, seems to be working.
1 – Freeze the piece
In the heat of writing, it’s difficult to maintain perspective. To see it afresh, I put it aside – freeze it – and work on something else. Days or weeks later, I resurrect it. By now I’ve distanced myself from the story or article. I can read it with objective eyes in the glaring light of reality, not so much as a writer now, but more like the reader for whom the piece is intended.
2 – Highlight scenes
To see where scenes lie in stories and to understand how they interplay with each other, Lee Gutkind (You Can’t Make This Stuff Up) suggests highlighting them. It’s a quick, but revealing test. If I’ve written a well-orchestrated story scenes dominate and there should be large blocks of colour interspersed by bands of white. The white bands show where I’ve stepped out of scenes to explain, inform, apply backfill or transition to another scene. Am I mostly showing (highlighted sections) or am I predominately telling (white sections)? Are the bands of white really necessary? Am I packing in too much information? Is there a way to turn some of the white into colour?
3 – Read for structure, continuity and theme
Next, I read the entire piece beginning to end to check on its integrity and structure. At this stage, I am not concerned with fine details like word choice or sentence formation although if something obvious stands out I certainly make a note of it. I am aiming for a more holistic view. Does the whole thing hang together? Does the story flow? Are the thoughts logical? Is the theme apparent? Does the lead work? What about the ending and the title? Often at this stage, I discover that the lead I initially wrote isn’t really the best one after all, and that there is a far better one a few paragraphs later.
4 – Cut big, then small
To borrow a passage from Roy Peter Clark (Writing Tools, 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer) “…begin by pruning the big limbs. You can shake out the dead leaves later.” At this stage, I look for ways to economize on words and tighten the overall focus, chopping any sentences, quotes, dialogue, descriptions and even characters that do not serve the central theme of the story or article. From the wreckage that is left, I do minor surgery on the ‘dead leaves’ – cutting redundant adverbs, pumping life into obscure passages, and replacing dull language with livelier imagery.
5 – Read aloud
Finally I read the piece aloud. In Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark notes that although we write with our eyes, we read mostly with our ears. By reading aloud, I become aware of rhythm and pace, of repetition and flow, of words that trip over each other and those that ring true. Reading aloud tells me if the overhauls I made in the first few steps really work. More importantly, reading aloud gives me a true measure of style and voice, properties that are as unique to each writer as DNA and fingerprints. How does my writing sound? Is it really me?
* * *
I’ve tried the 5-step plan for a few weeks now, and I am pleased to report that it has made a significant difference to my writing. I notice things I didn’t before, and instead of making random changes based on guesswork, I make more conscious choices. It’s a start, but I am still hunting for other revision tactics to try. Anyone? What works for you?