Hope you are well. A month or two ago a writer I didn’t know put out a request for drafts of short stories she could show her class. Because my grandmother was a hoarder and because I may have inherited the worst of her habits, I have a box of old drafts I was happy to dig through and send. Why did I spend my afternoon doing this? I don’t think we talk about revision enough and students need to “see” this process, the earlier the better, so that they can begin to understand the scope of what this process might entail.
It was useful for me to take a look at them too. I had forgotten how I’d gotten from idea to publication. One started very small - 100 words or so. Another began longer and was whittled down. The third was drafted without regard to order. One of the revision steps involved me sitting on the floor, cutting twenty or twenty-five paragraphs apart and taping them back together.
I don’t remember a great deal of my grad school instruction, but I specifically remember Richard Bausch telling our workshop that some of his stories went through twenty or so revisions. I nearly fell out of my chair. Twenty revisions! I was confident that my stories would not need that many passes. (I should say, this was also when I was writing stories where nothing much happened. So. I had a lot to learn on several fronts.) That’s exactly what my first at attempts at revision were - passes, mostly on the line level. Even those were lacking.
As I wander through Revisionland, I’ve been using Matt Bell’s Refuse to be Done and The Art of Revision by Peter Ho Davies as road maps. Here’s a link to Bell’s craft talk. And a chat with Davies here.
To grow as a writer is to grow as a revisor.
There are parts of revision I love. (I could tinker with word choice for ever. It’s like an endless game of Wordle.) There are parts that I dislike. And parts I still need to be better at. (Letting go of perfectly good chapters, for one.)
Davies posits that one of the issues of revision is the mystery surrounding it. Part of this has to do with our emphasis on generation. We romanticize inspiration with notions of the muse descending down upon us. Media representation of writing usually happens in frenzied bursts of genius. Most workshops and classes are geared toward generating work. It is easier, perhaps, to begin something new than to finish something. (I recently read that only 3% of novel drafts are finished. Yikes! Finish those novels, friends.) Revision then becomes a chore. And an overwhelming one at that. It’s something we know we need to do, and yet. Here are all these pages of problems. Where to start. How?
Much of revision needs to be about revisioning scenes, complicating the narrative with higher stakes, linking scenes through more cause and effect, deepening our characters at every turn.
We don’t tend think of revision as a creative process but the antithesis of that. Davis suggests we recalibrate our thinking on revision.
Tidying one’s room after all has a known—boring—outcome, though consider if your mom told you there was a treasure hidden somewhere in that mess. Suddenly the tidying is allied to a potential of discovery, which was a lot closer to the truth of revision.
In his book Bell offers lots of suggestions on how to propel the work forward when you are stuck (first draft, second, it doesn’t matter)—while also tapping into the sense of discovery. He suggests circling back to what’s already in the text for guidance. Revisiting locations, bringing characters back. These are also great ideas for revising and opening up those spots that feel stagnant. Think it’s boring to stay in the same spot with the same characters? Look at Monet’s renderings of Parliament. There are nineteen in the series and each one creates a new feeling, a new perspective by the way the light is rendered and what becomes the focus.
He also has some pretty great advice for revising scenes (cut the explanations) and sentences (you don’t need half as many She watched, She saw, She thought as you have).
One of the problems to my mind regarding revision is the sheer scope of it. It seems so overwhelming. Consider: There is no wrong choice. Any direction you take will lead you somewhere. Sometimes when I have an idea that will blow things open, I jot down a quick list of ramifications. If I change this, what is gained? How does it change relationships? Would it add more friction / urgency / stakes?
One of the best revision tools I’ve been given—after you read through your manuscript from beginning to end (all in one go, if you can) is to create a spread sheet with these column categories: Chapters or Scenes (if your chapters are long), Plot Points or events, Does it Work?, Key Issues, Possible Solutions. I have columns for word count since that’s one of my issues. You could also add columns for Questions Raised / Questions Answered. Or columns geared toward raising stakes or keeping track of characters if that’s something you need to focus on.
I know lots of folks are working on 1000 Words of Summer this week. But if you, like me, are using this time to revise the mess you’ve already made, here’s a treasure trove of revision prompts and guest posts Matthew Salesses assembled during his month long revision residency at Necessary Fiction.
Draft Journal is one of the rare journals that takes a look at early drafts of famous works. They also have revision exercises and a podcast.
Journals currently open for your work: Pleiades is open through the end of June, JMWW is open for poetry, CNF, & flash fiction under 1500 words, Sweet is open for poetry & CNF through July 31. Mason Jar Press is open for experimental novels, short story or essay collections, and memoirs through July 15th. So get on those revisions!
That’s it from revisionland.
If you know someone struggling with revision, they’d probably love you forever if you forward this to them.
Or maybe you also have a great revision tip? We’d be ever grateful if you’d drop it in the comments.
Ok scribblers. It’s a beautiful day to wrangle some words. Pencils up. You got this~