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Revision I

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Revision can be a bit of a touchy subject. On one hand, revision’s often called the heart of writing, and it really is that important. On the other hand, if you’re not sure what’s supposed to change, it can quickly become an infuriating exercise where it feels like you’ve got a car stuck in mud and all you know how to do is hit the gas pedal harder. (Or maybe that’s just me.)

In the vein of at least trying to be helpful, here are some things that might make revision easier.

At heart, revision is just what the word literally breaks down to. “Re-vision.” Seeing again. You go back to a piece of writing and, seeing new things about the piece that you’ve actually written, you make it closer to the piece you want to write. That’s really vague, but it's also the best I can come up with after mulling this over for a few weeks.

If you’re satisfied with a piece, it’s done, no matter what anyone else thinks. It might not win any prizes or ever get published, but you’ve accomplished what you set out to accomplish and it’s time to move on to other things. But if you’re not completely satisfied, and you’re having problems seeing where to go, there are a few things you can try.

Thinking back to when I first started writing, revision was very much a checklist process. It’s grown from there as I’ve learned more about the craft, but that’s still very much the heart of the whole thing for me. The steps got a bit like this:

  1. I write something.
  2. I set it aside for a while.
  3. I read it over to figure out what’s not there.
  4. Next, I put that stuff in to see if that makes the writing better.
  5. If it does, great. If not, it’s time to try something else.

But what actually makes writing better? In other words, how do people actually put step 4 into practice?

It's simple. They use their judgement and go for it. It sucks, but looking back at my older work, the revision didn't help much in terms of making the writing better. It was mainly an exploration of all the different ways I could come up with bad writing. Sometimes I cringe to read the really bad ones.

What it did do, however, is make me more aware of what a poem/story/novel is, and that’s the real value. It gives you a chance to refine your artistic judgment, which is, quite possibly, the most important part of becoming a better writer.

But back to the checklist approach. There’s a very simple way to get started. Make a list of things that should be in good writing, and then go down that list to make sure that everything on that list makes it into what you wrote. In the beginning it doesn't need to get more complicated than that. Like with every other skill, it’s practice that builds competence.

For example, when I start writing a story, it often comes out like this:

The school bus pulled up to James’s stop. Ignoring the taunts of the jocks, he grabbed his backpack and headed to the front of the bus. The driver gave him a disinterested glance and pulled the lever. The doors creaked open and James stepped out onto the dusty, gravel road. The bus sped away and he headed for his house. Out in the country, it was half a mile from the stop, but he enjoyed using the time to think.

It lays out the basics of character, scene and action, but there’s not much more here than that. Setting it aside for later...

*wanders off*

*comes back with sandwich*

Okay. Looking back at that paragraph, what’s not there? Well, there’s a lot that’s not there, but a few things that stand out to me are:

So my next step would be to put all that stuff in there and see what happens. When actually writing, it’s hard for me to break each of those aspects down separately, so I’ll just expand on that paragraph again and add more fidelity:

The school bus, so old it was closer to white than yellow, pulled up to James’ stop. Pulling himself off the sticky seat, James grabbed his backpack and made his way to the front of the bus. He held it close, not defensively, but because he wouldn't put it past the jocks to steal it right out of his hands.

“What? You think you’re better than us?” Dean snarled as James walked past. He was a senior but still rode the bus. He claimed it was because he couldn't afford a car, but everyone knew he was too stupid to pass the licensing test.

As usual, James ignored him, even when the customary pencil bounced off his head.

The younger kids, still in elementary school, idolized Dean and catcalled James all the way to the front of the bus.

The driver glanced back with the disinterested air of someone who didn't get paid enough to give a shit and opened the doors. The lever creaked and the doors reluctantly parted, revealing the dusty, gravel road beyond. James stepped outside.

As the bus sped away, raising a cloud of dust, James sighed and set his backpack down. Even in early spring, the heat was oppressive and he’d take the half-mile walk home as slowly as he could. Kicking the stack of tires which marked the technical start of the driveway, he debated leaving his backpack behind.

But no, he had to study. It was his one chance out. And though he hated to admit it, the long walk home also gave him much-appreciated time to think. Even with the buzzing insects and occasional barking of the dogs who wandered the sticks, it was quiet.

James tugged at the collar of his T-shirt, shouldered his backpack, and started to walk.

At this point, I’d set it down again, come back later, and then see if there was anything else missing that I could put in. If I don’t like something that’s already there, I’ll remove it completely, change it, or see if I can work it in elsewhere. Eventually, I’ll either end up with something I’m happy with or realize that it’s a lost cause.

That’s really all revision is. You take what you know about writing and apply it to the piece you’re revising. Sometimes you make it better, sometimes you make it worse, and sometimes you just have to admit that you don’t know enough about writing to figure out what to do in the first place. (If that last happens, you might have to settle for setting the writing aside and come back to it years later.)

So, how do you get better at revision? You really don’t. It just kind of happens as you mature as a writer. At first, it might be frustrating and slow, but as you learn more, it gets easier.

Exercises

Do-It-Yourself Revision

  1. Find (or create) your own revision checklist.
  2. Make sure it has everything that you’ve learned about writing.
  3. Take that checklist and apply it to a piece of writing that needs revision.
  4. More steps? I've got nothing.

The Google Says

The Expanded Power Revision Checklist - while the expansion of its power makes it fearsome indeed, it's a great checklist.