Revisionary: Three Thoughts on Fixing What’s Broken

I’m not sure if it’s my favorite (favourite?) distinction between British English and American English, but I spent a good chunk of my first term at school in Wales being alternately charmed and confused by “review” and “revise.” Revising, there, is something you do to prepare for an exam. (At the end of the second year, my cohort and I concocted ornate revision schedules that we nearly managed to follow.) Review is used much more often in the context of “a formal review.” You know, the kind of thing you might revise for.

What’s important to either usage of either word is that they involve seeing again, looking intensely. When you look again, the goal is not to see the surface of the story (the writing you’ve already done), but the story underneath. See what the underlying principles are. See where the story has gotten away from its best self. Those are the spots you need to go back to, to make the story match the vision. (It’s just as true, incidentally, of nonfiction and academic writing, even if they don’t have “stories” in the same way.)

I posted about editing not too long ago. I described it as selection, keeping the best bits and weeding out the worst. Editing is also, though, a reaction. As writers or editors, when we go to edit a work, we are reacting to what’s on the page. Revising (in the American sense) is an active process, one in which we make the good better and the replace the bad. We push and pull and coax the story toward the vision we have for it.

That vision can change. We refine it when we share our writing with our favorite co-conspirators or hand it to an editor. When we look again, we might see things that were in our blind spots for the last go-round. Whatever changes, though, there are a few things that help (me) with the revision process:

1. Have a Plan

Even if you are an inveterate pantser when you write, having a plan makes revision smoother. Some fixes are simple enough to handle intuitively. Most, though, require a bit of forethought (which is not easy to do while you’re writing). What other parts of the story does a particular scene touch? More importantly, why are we changing what’s there? What do we have in our mind’s eye or ear that we’re pulling the story toward? How are you going to get there? Change in voice? Altering a character’s actions? If we’re replacing a bad section, how do we avoid making the new one bad? The more you have figured out about the problem before you go mucking around in your story’s guts, the more likely you are to have the right tools on hand. Plus, you’ll be less likely to leave a spanner in there that will necessitate more work later.

2. Keep Your Eyes Fresh

This is vital for editing, too, and one of the best reasons to have somebody who is not you look your work over. When I get into a story, it’s hard to hold on to the big picture and the small picture at the same time. It is also particularly hard to kill your darlings when they’re cozy at home. Work environments matter. Mess with them. If you’re sticking to soft copy, try opening your document in a different program. Print it to .pdf and read it without being able to change things. Personally, I love having hard copy to scribble on, even if it’s not always practical. Do what you can to disrupt the habits of your eyes. You’ll notice more—not just bad things, either.

3. Remember That it is Your Work
(in both senses of ‘work’)

The story you’re revising is yours. If it gets out into the world, it will have your name on it, no matter how awesome your editors or workshoppers were. If you’re self-publishing, you get to make the final decisions. Even if you’re not self-publishing, you don’t have to do everything your interlocutors suggest. I’ve mentioned before that I had an excellent advisor for my master’s thesis in music history. She taught me an enormous amount about making academic writing good writing. That didn’t stop us from disagreeing, though. I’d get drafts back marked to pieces in mechanical pencil. Some (many) of her suggestions or corrections were good ones. There were others that I didn’t agree with. I left them in the subsequent drafts. If they came back marked a second time, I’d think harder about changing things. That didn’t happen very often. It would have been a much worse document without my advisor’s input, but it was still my name on it.

Revising is also your work to do. Your editors point out problems. They might suggest fixes, but they won’t make them. As the writer, it’s your responsibility to fix what’s broken. Revision is work. It is often a grind that forces you to fight your own bad habits. Revision can be a painfully unfun slog. It’s just as much part of being a writer, though, as zooming through that ecstatic first draft or smiling at the fact you’ve changed nothing into something. When you get to the end and you’ve polished everything to gleaming? It’s worth it.

So go forth and work with fresh eyes. Know that I’ll be trying to do the same over here.

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