Writers’ Craft 10: Revision

So, you’ve written a thing

You’ve just keyed in the final word, placed punctuation, and the sense of accomplishment that settles over you is profound. You’re done.

Or are you?

At this point it’s all too easy to think there isn’t another thing that needs doing to that piece of writing. You’ve been careful throughout, not only with the mechanics of good writing — punctuation, spelling, grammar — but with plot, literary devices, character development, research. It would be all too easy to pull the trigger and fire it off to an agent or publisher, or the editor of that magazine you’re trying to crack, or hit the upload button through a self-publishing portal.

Don’t.

Time develops perspective

Good writing is like good wine. It needs time. What you really should do at this point is close the document, walk away, go do something else for a week, or four, or a couple of months. Do something completely different. Even write something completely different. But whatever you do, do not pull the trigger on the freshly-finished manuscript. Why? Because, and trust me on this, when you do come back to the piece you’ll come back to it with a fresh perspective. It always astonishes me, in my own work, how much tighter, cleaner, cohesive I can make the story by simply allowing myself time. I get to review all the plot inconsistencies, all the opportunities for development, all the missed conversations or descriptions or research which would have furthered not just the plot, but character, tension, the entire foundation of what I’ve created.

And if I can benefit from the boon of time and perspective, so can you. So walk away.

Create a new document

You don’t have to, but I have found it useful to save my revision as a new document. Not that I’ve ever had to go back to the original draft, but it just strikes me as a good failsafe in case things go awry. And they can. Mr. Murphy, who always likes to exercise his law, may just pull up to your document have tea.

Once that bit of housekeeping is out of the way, then you can set to your revision. What you’re doing at this point is coming at it from a distance, as an editor with a critical eye. Some writers set about their revision through Track Changes in Word (or whatever equivalent tool in your word processing program). Myself, I don’t bother.

Other writers print out a hard copy of the document and make their changes pen to paper. Again, this is something I don’t do personally. But if you find any of these methods works for you, then do it. As I’ve said before: there is no single, correct way of writing. You have to find your own method and your own rhythm.

But what I do know is that a second or even third revision may be called for, because after each pass you should again step away, allow yourself time in which to think about the story. When you are utterly comfortable, when you can’t think of another point or opportunity you’ve missed, then go back over the manuscript once or twice with a spelling and grammar check. I would caution you not to hit the universal change button. I’ve done this a few times, much to my despair, only to discover some horrendous changes which took me days to undo.

Will my manuscript ever be perfect?

Probably not. What in life is? When I was publishing other authors’ work, I can remember agonizing over errors we’d let slip through, even after two, sometimes three different editors, plus the author, would have a look. One of my own novels is out there, and I still grit my teeth because I know there are spelling errors I didn’t catch after nine — yes, nine! — revisions and edits.

But do take encouragement and pride in the fact you’ve done your level best to polish your story to the best of your ability. Sure, you can churn out six novels a year. But do you really want to? Will those six novels be works you can look back upon with pride? If you’re writing just to create pulp, then fine. But if you’re writing because of a different calling, or as a journalist who cares about correct detail, then time and an exacting nature will stand you in good stead.

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