Revision Traps and Tricks
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman
Most writers recognize that first drafts are rarely publishable. It’s the process of revision that refines and polishes the prose, turning a rough draft into a publishable work. The wrong approach to revising can become a trap; the correct approach will guide the writer to produce a piece he can be proud of. With that in mind, let us take a look at some of the traps and tricks of the revision experience:
• Revising by committee. This happens frequently in critique groups. The writer brings in a story or chapter for feedback and receives a flood of conflicting opinions and comments. She re-works the story and takes it back to her critique group where she receives more suggestions for improvement. She continues to revise the same story, asking for more critiques, until she finally gives up in frustration because she no longer knows what she wants to write.
• Revising too soon. The worst mistake a writer can make with revision is to start revising as soon as he has finished the piece. The writer is still too close to the work to see the flaws. Another trap is editing the first draft while he is still in the process of writing it. The writer gets caught in the trap of trying to make the beginning perfect and never finishes the story.
• Revising in the wrong direction. The writer has just finished a complete draft of her cozy mystery, but the book is at least 25,000 words over the accepted length of that genre. She starts by cutting unnecessary words in each chapter but still cannot get the book down to a manageable size. For big projects, it is best to revise from the largest section to the smallest: In a book, cut entire chapters first. Then cut scenes from the remaining chapters. Then examine paragraphs within the scenes. The final revisions take place at the sentence and word level.
• Revising the wrong things. The writer concentrates only on the easy fixes: punctuation, spelling, and grammar. He overlooks the important elements of structure, organization, plot and conflict, pacing, character development, story arc, or sustained tension.
• Revising without changing. Every writer commits this sin at least once: She falls in love with her words. The writer has been told that her work is florid or overwritten, but she adores her clever metaphors and detailed description. Instead of careful editing, she rearranges the text by moving a sentence or removing a word or two. But nothing has really been changed or improved.
• Storyboard it. Write a one-sentence description of each scene in your novel on an index card, one card per scene. Arrange these scene cards under their respective chapter headings on a large bulletin board on your wall. You will be able to see the “big picture” of your book. Look for places where you need to add or remove a scene to improve the pacing.
• Color-code it. The magic of modern word-processing programs is that you can type in different colors. If you have written a rambling saga or complicated tale of suspense, you can use color coding to help you track characters and subplots. Assign a different color to the names of each major character or to key words of each storyline. When you print out the book, you will be able to quickly identify how often your characters or subplots are referenced.
• Put it away. It is almost impossible to revise your work effectively if you are still heavily emotionally invested in the creation of it. You need to distance yourself before you start to make major changes. After I finish the draft of a short story, I put it away for at least three months and start work on other writing projects. When I come back to the story, I can easily see the flaws that need to be corrected.
• Write a one-page synopsis. Write a one-page synopsis that tells the complete story from beginning to end. Concentrate on only the main plot points. If there are holes in your story, they will become immediately apparent.
• Read your work out loud. Read every single sentence to yourself out loud. Listen for the awkward phrasing, the misplaced punctuation, the stilted dialogue, the flat narration, the slow pacing, and the wrong word choice. This technique is even more effective if someone reads your writing out loud to you.
• Trust your instincts. Never, never forget why you wrote the piece in the first place. When in doubt, go back to what inspired you, to what you loved about this story before you put the words to paper. Remember, you know your work better than anyone. It is your story, your words, and you are the final authority.
One final thought…The original word count of this article was 1137 words. The final word count after revision: 831 words!
Newsletter contributing columnist Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in numerous magazines, newsletters, and anthologies. The recipient of artistic grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Creative Capital Foundation, she is currently studying for her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Phoenix and teaches writing workshops and classes in the metro area.
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