If you want to improve your writing you know you have to revise your writing. But, in my work with writers I encounter a lot of resistance when it comes to revision.
Some of this resistance comes from myths around the best way to revise and edit your own writing.
I’m here to bust seven of those myths.
1. Revision is all about seeing where you’ve failed
As I talked about last week, seeing where you’re succeeding can be just as important, if not more than seeing what’s not working. You don’t want to cut out your best lines!.
It can be helpful to get other people to look at your work, both for a fresh pair of eyes on a project we may be too close to, and because we do tend to be a little hard on ourselves.
Experienced writers tend to have a well-developed sense of what’s working in their writing as well as what’s not…but it’s not flawless and we all need a little feedback from time to time.
And when you DO find something that needs to be reworked (let’s not call it a ‘failure’) work on celebrating.
- Seeing what’s not working gives you an opportunity to fix it.
- Going back to older stories and noticing what’s not working, is a measure of how far your skills have advanced.
2. You must walk away from your work for two weeks, before you revise
Distance can be helpful, for sure, but there are different ways to gain enough distance from your current draft that you can see it clearly.
If you reread a lot as you write, then it’s possible you may need to put the work away for a few weeks before you can see all the things you didn’t quite get out of your head and onto the page properly.
If, however, you’re a fast-drafter — someone who writes a draft from beginning to end, without much re-reading — then you may be able to go straight back to the beginning and be surprised (and delighted) by what you find there.
You still created distance from your work…you just did it as you were working by not re-reading!
3. Revision is all about beautiful sentences
Catching typos, correcting spelling, and polishing your word choices: these things are part of the revision process but they are the tiniest and final piece.
Do not start here.
If you do, it’ll be so much harder to view the whole work objectively and see what needs to be cut, rearranged or added to.
We tend to go straight for the typos because it’s our brain’s way of making us feel safe.
- We know how to correct typos and how to futz with punctuation.
- We may not know how to fix structural problems or figure out why the protagonist seems kind of limp, or whether we’re creating emotion in the reader, or if the ending is satisfying.
These are the real jobs of revision and they’re difficult because this story has never been written before and we don’t know how to write it. We’re inventing something completely new.
When we do something new, our brains want us to stop because they want us to feel safe and they want us to only do things that we know how to do.
We’re not consciously thinking, I don’t know how to develop this character, therefore, this character represents saber tooth tiger and my brain is being old or neolithic about it.
Instead, we stand up and go to the fridge, or phone a friend, or start surfing social media.
Procrastination happens when we’re doing difficult stuff. But so does growth.
4. Revision is all about cutting
Revision is Michelangelo sculpting away everything from the block of marble that isn’t the horse, right?
Revision–depending on how your write your drafts– can be about
- looking at your sketchy outline of a story and adding in rich, layered, emotion-generating scenes between the necessary narrative passages, adding dialogue
- telling the story in a completely different order
- Combining events and characters in different ways
Unless you are the kind of writer who massively over-writes everything (and that seems unlikely to me), you will spend your revision time beefing up some sections and paring away at others, in order to get the right emotional beats and narrative motion.
It’s not all about cutting.
5. Make sure to always/never use Technique X or Y
There are lots of things that critique partners and beta readers flag as things that ‘break the rules’:
- Third person omniscient
- Whatever else they’re struggling with in their own writing.
The reality is: we can use any and all techniques that work to tell our stories, regardless of rules or fashion.
Our choices might offend some people, or make it harder to find someone who wants to publish our work.
- What’s the point in doing all this hard work, if you only ever write something anyone else could have written?
- Do you want to make good art?
- Is commercial success important to you?
When we know our purpose in writing each piece, we can judge how to take other people’s advice about what we should always/never do, in our writing.
Consider the advice. But consider your aims and consider what sounds fun.
6. Don’t revise as you write
I talked about this in Myth 2. It’s related but slightly different.
There is a danger in constantly revising our work as we write: we might never finish. The beginning will be polished but will have changed so much from the initial idea that we may stall ourselves from writing any more.
However, for some people the practice of reading yesterday’s work before starting on todays, actually propels them into the working day.
If you find you’re constantly tweaking the beginnings of stories and never making it to the end, consider not revising as you go.
If, however, you find that tweaking the last section powers your writing of a new section, do that!
And remember, this may change from project to project. Be flexible.
7. Show, don’t tell
This is a really convenient phrase and also an infuriating phrase because it’s shorthand that isn’t helpful until you already understand what it means.
My interpretation of this advice is to pay attention to the difference between scenes and narrative, and work on developing a sense of when to use each.
What is a scene vs a narrative passage? I’ll be talking more about this in upcoming articles, but basically:
A scene takes us inside a moment and lets us linger there. It probably has lots of descriptive writing, maybe some dialogue, lots of sensual writing. It stokes our emotions. It tells the reader “This moment is important.”
A narrative passage moves the story along, between those important moments.
Now, if that’s true, then you should be ‘showing’ (taking the reader inside the moment) in scenes and ‘telling’ (relating what’s happening, probably in a narrator’s voice) in the narrative passages.
If you ‘show’ everything, you become that boring friend who doesn’t know how to select the interesting details when they tell you about the ‘funny thing that happened’, and who you avoid when you see them at parties.
Knowing the difference and using each in its place, is more important than trying to slavishly follow the advice to ‘show, don’t tell’.
So, did I hit your hang-ups about revision? Did I miss any myths? Leave a comment and let me know!