The Revisions Process: Part One: On A Theory of Revising
I’ve been asked several times to talk about the process of revision, and it has taken me a long time to get down even these incomplete and partial reflections because the process is so difficult to describe, so hard to quantify, and so individual both for each writer and for different projects by the same writer.
When I think about what I have learned and how I have improved in skill and experience as a writer, most of that improvement revolves not around coming up with ideas or characters or even necessarily interactions between characters. While I hope I have the experience of age in being able to see more nuance and layers in human behavior, I do not think I am “better at” coming up with “ideas” (depending on how you define what an “idea” is in the context of fiction).
What I know, however, is that I have a better grasp of the revisions process.
I know how to look at a scene, or a conversation, or some element or detail within a book, and identify that it needs work or, at the least, that something about it makes me twitchy and uncomfortable, which means it needs work. Then, I can often pick it apart to the point where I can sort how it isn’t working and, through trial and error or in a single flash of authorial brilliance, figure out how to fix it.
I used to prefer writing the first draft, that blast of inspiration that flowed from point A, the beginning, to point B, the end (although I hasten to add that not all writers write their first drafts in a linear fashion). These days, I find the early drafting process far more laborious, perhaps in part because I do a lot more mini revision during the course of the “first” draft than I ever used to do (I call this “the hemidemisemi-draft”).
The writing I now savor is revising.
Revising, once a grinding chore, seems like a joyful and even exhilarating process because during the revisions process I see the story come clean. It’s as if during the drafting process I have to slam it all down no matter how muddy it gets, but when I revise, I make the picture vivid and resonant. With rare exceptions--because there are a few scenes in every book that write so clean on the first pass that I have to do very little work on them later-- the drama, beauty, and emotion of my stories, in so far as I manage that feat at all, I manage through revision.
But how do I revise? How does anyone revise?
I consider this to be an unanswerable question, because the process is too personal and particularized to be universal. I cannot tell you how to revise. I can tell you what has worked for me in the past, what may work for me in the present and future (although one never knows because every book writes and rewrites within a process unique to that individual book), and what I have learned and thought about and acted on and discarded.
You can take from that what you will, but ultimately one of your tasks as a writer is to figure out how your process works, because your process is going to be different from every other writer’s process. At best, you will be relieved to discover similarities and be boggled at differences. It’s all good. In fact, I get the hugest kick out of both the differences and the similarities in writers’ processes. I wouldn’t want us all to work alike according to rules imposed from an outside source. For me, the interest lies in the diversity.
So where do I begin in thinking about revision?
I think the first step in learning to revise is to figure out how you draft.
If you know how you draft, you’ll have a better idea of what you are likely to need to focus on as you revise.
You may have a general way of drafting that you use for all books. You may draft each book or story differently. Either way, it is important to recognize the parts within that process that may tend to leave you open to weaknesses, elisions, gaps, or fuzziness, because those are the first places you can look to see where you need to revise.
Me, I write long. My first drafts sprawl all over the place; conversations meander across hill and dale; I put in too much description and answer the same questions over and over and often in a contradictory manner and I repeat myself. And I repeat myself. More than once.
I often write placeholder scenes or even chapters, which I define as a scene or chapter that doesn’t really work and doesn’t have the right stuff in it but which needs to be there because something important will happen in that scene space once I figure out what it is, and I often can’t figure out what it is until I have the entire first draft written and sometimes not until the second or third draft (for instance, I had a short placeholder chapter in the first draft of Cold Fire that turned into three chapters when I expanded it properly).
Because I know these things are true of my early drafting process, I know that beyond whatever else the story needs--and each story needs a different revision--I will absolutely need to cut, trim, tighten, and sharpen throughout the book. I will have to go back through the whole and bring the heart of the story into focus by identifying scenes or conversations that ramble off the focus on the heart of the story, because I do tend to digress or get interested in that plot whisper over there which suddenly appears so mysterious and inviting. I must also flag places where I repeat information and then consolidate it in the most effective and dramatic fashion.
But your process likely works differently, so you will need to approach revision with a different set of relatively predictable goals.
Maybe you scant description in the first draft and know you generally need to plump up your barebones draft. Maybe you write scenes out of order and have to thread them together. Maybe your early drafting is more about sounding the depths of the story, and later drafts will likely be completely rewritten versions of some element of the original. Maybe you plot out the book in such detail that writing the first draft is more like setting down an already written story in its full complexity, and what you’re looking for in the redraft is typos, contradictions, and a smooth flow.
Understanding how you draft also tells you how much of the story and character and landscape is known before you begin, in which case your job in the first draft is to get it on the page in the right proportions, and how much is what you are discovering as you write, in which case revising will involve changing earlier chapters to fit later revelations and plot and character shifts. Some writers are hardcore outliners who know it all before they start; some know nothing and learn it all as they go. Many, I expect, fall somewhere between.
What matters, I believe, is to make a realistic assessment from as objective a mindset as possible of your own patterns, strengths, and weaknesses as a writer, so that beyond anything else that might need fixing, you can keep your eyes open for the things that generally trip you up.
But how, I often wonder, can I stay realistic and to some degree objective when I’m often so invested or immersed in my writing?
When it comes to revising, learning how to let go of my precious work has been crucial. To revise properly and effectively I have to be able to step back from the text.
Drafts are provisional.
The statement reveals the essence of revision. If I think of a scene as carved in stone instead of written in sand, then it will be difficult for me to find a way back into looking at it for its weaknesses instead of its strengths.
I see this in two ways.
First case, I often have a vision in my head of a character, a scene, a landscape, an interaction, or what have you, that I have fully invested with emotion or vivid color. Consistently I must step back and ask myself: is what is in my head coming across to the reader, or am I imposing or filling out the drama or complexity of the scene from my own understanding of it which may not be on the page but only in my head.
Second case, because of the way I write, I often write scenes in early drafts, especially involving interactions between characters, whose content or emotional flow must be changed later because
1) I have altered some element of the plot or
2) my understanding or view of the characters themselves has adapted or become more nuanced or
3) I decide I want or need to emphasize a different element or angle of the relationship between/among the characters.
In the second case, I have to be free to change my mind about what I had originally planned for the characters.
In the first case, I need to assess how well I’ve succeeded in getting what’s in my head onto the page instead of projecting my own knowledge onto the scene.
So how do you let go?
Partly it is accepting the fact of imperfection.
There are writers who write incredibly clean first drafts because somehow the way they work results in incredibly clean first drafts. Maybe that’s how their brain processes words--that is, that much of the writing process goes on within the brain and the writing part is simply putting it down. Maybe they have planned and considered the book for months before actually writing it and it has already gone through multiple iterations in their head. Maybe they just do, and there’s no real way to explain why or how. Some things just are.
I’m not that writer.
I’m a visual learner but more than that I’m a kinesthetic learner, and I’ve come to the conclusion I’m also a kinesthetic writer, so the actual physical act of writing, the interaction of writing, alters the words and the story even as I’m writing as well as before and after.
The understanding that my early drafts are imperfect, and that it’s okay that they are, allows me the freedom to feel free to look for what isn’t working yet as well as what is working.
Because here’s the thing. When I first began writing, writing a first draft was easier than revising. In those days, having to revise seemed like failure. Now, knowing how to revise seems like success.
To approach the need for revision as an opportunity for success makes it more of a welcome process than a dreadful one. That helps make it easier to let go.
Tomorrow: Why, no, I’m not done yet. Why do you ask? Tomorrow I discuss things I look for when I’m deciding how the revise a completed draft.