Writing Tips  |  Revising Tips

"Revising" comes from "re" + "vision"--seeing (and I would add hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling) something again.  Revising involves reading your work as if someone else wrote it, and changing anything that makes you stumble or that doesn't ring true.  Revising doesn't just mean running spell-check and fixing commas (though I'm sometimes surprised by how much difference in meaning a comma can make!).  Here are some tips that have helped me through the revision process.

1. Plan ahead for revision to be part of your process

If you know ahead of time that writers revise their novels multiple times, you won't be disappointed when you reach the end of Draft 2 and realize that you still have work to do.  I average about four drafts for a novel--although that might be an underestimate, because I find that my drafts have names like "Draft 4a," "Draft 4b," "Draft 4b with [a certain scene]," and "Draft 4b without [that scene]."  When you reach the end of a draft, celebrate that accomplishment--because it really is an accomplishment! (Do you know how many would-be writers feel they have a book in them but never complete a draft?)  Then do whatever you need to gear up for your revision.  This could mean putting the manuscript aside for a (short) while, sending it out for feedback, or announcing to several people your self-imposed deadline for your next draft.  Then jump into the revision with the same enthusiasm you had for the first draft!

2. Don't start revising until you've made significant progress on a first draft

This is about “silencing your inner editor," a phrase coined by Brenda Ueland, who wrote a wonderful book called If You Want to Write.  Planning for revision allows that inner editor to shut up for a while, because you know that he or she will have an opportunity to speak later on.  While you're writing your first draft, just keep going.  It doesn't have to be perfect; it just has to be.

3. Find readers whose feedback you trust

Family members are great for encouragement--sometimes we all need to hear that whatever we do is wonderful--but if you're serious about wanting to be a published writer and perhaps to earn your living by writing, you need people to read your writing and tell you what’s not working, what doesn't make sense, and what could be said better.  I find that other writers are often the best at this because they know what kind of feedback is the most helpful, and they'll usually be kind about delivering painful news because they know you'll be reading their material next.  I am currently in a writing group that has six other members; I find that a major benefit--in addition to the helpful feedback--is the physical presence of meeting face-to-face with people once a month who may ask, "So, what have you written this month?"  That motivates me to keep going on days when I think I have nothing to write.  In addition to my writing group, I regularly send works-in-progress to several good writer-friends from my college and just-after-college days in Philadelphia.

Where to find fellow writers?  Writing classes and workshops are a great way to connect with other writers.  Hopefully the classes will also teach something, but even if they don't, you might meet someone interesting.  (My writing group began after several of us met in a wonderful writing workshop.  We've added people we've met through work, through friends, and through a less-successful writing workshop.)  There are workshops in *lots* of places, for adults, young people, and multi-age groups.  If there is truly nothing available at a school, college, community center, religious institution, or other place near where you live, you could post a notice on a bulletin board or in a publication looking for local writers; chances are, someone may be looking for you too.  If you are writing for young people, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators can help connect you with other writers locally and long-distance.  

4. Make it shorter

Often the goal of shortening a scene forces me to focus on its most essential elements, and conveying those elements  in strong, power-packing words.  When I am nearing the end of a draft, I have a list of "weak words" that I search for throughout the manuscript.  I am always surprised by how often I can replace these words and phrases with stronger ones, or eliminate them entirely.  I also find the writer Holly Lisle's website helpful in this process.

5. Know when you are finished revising

In The Plague, a novel by Albert Camus, one character spends his entire life revising and re-revising the same sentence.  While many beginning writers have the opposite problem--reluctance to begin revising--it is just as important to know when to stop.  For me, that moment occurs when I realize I am making and un-making the same changes in each successive pass through a manuscript: I'll put a comma into a sentence, then, when I read that sentence a week later, I'll take the comma out.  The next week, the comma is back in.  At that point I'll realize that--while I do believe in the tremendous power of the comma!--the meaning of my novel or chapter or scene does not hinge on that particular comma.  I'll make one final decision about the comma and resolve not to think about it anymore.