Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Art of Revising

I so wanted to add In The Rain to that blog title, but since it isn't raining anywhere near here, it didn't really work. That's a writer's lot in life, isn't it? Having to sacrifice cleverness for clarity. Anywhoo...

My Lovely Agent and I were talking on the phone the other day about revising, and how difficult it can be for newer writers to understand the different between truly revising a manuscript and merely polishing it. Since I’m up to my elbows in revisions this week and it’s a subject that is currently near and dear to my heart, I thought I’d talk about it here.

I totally cringe now at some of the earlier projects I submitted to publishers. Looking back, I can so clearly see how NOT ready they were. They were first drafts that I’d polished, then submitted. And I think this is very common early on in our apprenticeship. We don’t know what don’t know, yet, if that makes any sense. We can’t know what knowledge we’re lacking, because we most likely haven’t been exposed to it yet.

Now some people are very, very good at polishing as they go. But this isn’t initially the case for most of us. For most of us, our first drafts are most definitely the $hi!!y first drafts Anne Lamott talks about in Bird by Bird. I think that’s one of the first things we need to recognize; that first drafts are simply everything we think we know about the story so far. That’s why I prefer the term discovery draft, because so often we learn so much in the writing of that draft, that it changes the story in the writing of it.

And that’s where revision or rewriting comes in. That’s when we step back and pull out our analytical tools and try to see objectively what is working in the story and should be kept, and what is lacking in the story. That’s when we check to see if we’re using the wrong voice, or if the structure is flawed or we need an antagonist of some sort. It’s where we can see that there isn’t enough conflict, or that the character isn’t solving his own problems or we’ve built to a huge climax, then undercut it in some way.

Only when all those issues have been ironed out, then we can work on polishing, which is smoothing out language, line editing, etc.

Now I’m going to put a disclaimer in here because I know a couple of my blog readers (Hi Katy!) do indeed work all this stuff out as they go. And the more I write under contract, the better I get at doing that myself. But for the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to talk in drafts because I think that’s a more universal place for most writers to start.

So tomorrow I’m going to talk about Macro Revising—the big picture things we need to look at in our first draft, then after that I’ll talk about Micro Revising—the small picture things. But today I'll leave you with the single most important revising tip I know:


The best (perhaps only?) way to gain any objectivity about your own work is through distance. If you put can put your manuscript aside for a month, you will be shocked, shocked I tell you, at how many of the macro flaws are now visible. Yes, finishing a manuscript is the best feeling in the world. So celebrate. Call all your friends and family. Break out the champagne. Go out to dinner. But do not send the mss off to an agent or editor yet. Don't do it. Wait at least a month. You will be SO glad you did. Pinkie swear.

And I apologize that I got this post up a little later in the morning than usual, but after yesterday’s typo disaster, I thought it prudent…


Story Weaver said...

I never thought there was a difference between polishing and revising!
Did I ever tell tell you how amazing you are?

Lori W. said...

Again. This is food for the writer's soul! It's been a feast over here at your blog. Very comforting to think of those hours spent writing really bad dialog or Swiss cheese plot lines as learning vs. time wasting.

Thank you for the reminder of "discovery draft". I sometimes find it helpful to write a revision of a chapter w/out looking back at the draft. Time letting it sit. Yep. That's helpful, too.

Katy Cooper said...

"Did I ever tell tell you how amazing you are?"

What story_weaver said.

I sometimes wish I wrote discovery drafts--it seems so hard not to. But I think writing is hard no matter how you do it -- to paraphrase (or maybe quote) A League of Their Own: "It's the hard that makes it great."

Unknown said...

Hi Robin! This is Deva from the Enchanted Inkpot. I just finished THEODOSIA AND THE SERPENTS OF CHAOS and adored it!

That revising is not polishing is something I've only recognized in recent years myself, and I so wish I could send this advice back to myself 20 years ago!

I am just nearing the end of my own month hiatus from my current project and am itching to get back to it. This is a welcome reminder for me to wait just a bit longer, in the hopes of gaining that all-important distance!

Karen Strong said...

This is great advice! I definitely come back and get some words of wisdom about revision.

I'm working on a "discovery" draft right now. I think I will let it sit when I done!

Robin L said...

Why thank you, Story Weaver!

LA, that's what I love about writing. NOTHING is ever wasted. It is all grist for the mill, narrowing down what works for us as a writer. All useful stuff!

Katy, yep. It's hard, but as I told someone once, I'd rather be tearing my hair out over writing than anything else. :-)

Hi Deva, my fellow Inkie! I am SO glad you liked THEODOSIA! Yeay! It's always exciting when other writers like ones work. And yes, wouldn't a time machine be nice? I really do cringe when I think of all those editors' time I wasted.

So glad the advice is working for you, Karen! And don't forget people, you're welcome to ask questions in the comments for any issues you'd like to see addressed.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Omigosh, it took me so long to realize that I had only been polishing my story. I'm going through truly revising and rewriting it and falling in love with my characters all over again as I give them depth.

The only thing that scares me is wondering how many times I'll have to do this before it's really ready? And can I write the people I submitted to and tell them to burn what I sent and look for a new version?