Top Ten Revising Tips from a Writer Who’s Always Revising

Revising is hard.

I’ve always been a big reviser. Though I wish I could crank out near-perfect prose in a first or second draft, that’s just not me. I tend to follow Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts” model, which leaves me in the revision phase A LOT. I’m currently finishing up the last (and hopefully light) revision on my most recent project, and so I’ve pulled together some tips for tackling this necessary evil. Without further ado …

1. Always begin with a complete draft.
This may seem obvious, but so many people delay finishing projects by obsessively tweaking the first half of their novel before they’ve written a climax or conclusion (which may change that first half, leading to even more revisions). While it’s tempting to make something perfect before moving ahead, I think it’s best to get the whole thing out first. That said, Revising shouldn’t be confused with Starting Over–if you’ve got less than 100 pages, starting anew may be necessary before you go further.

2. Wait. Then wait some more.
Finishing a novel is such an accomplishment and such a high, and you may want to jump right into revisions as soon as possible. Don’t. A couple of weeks to a couple of months spent relaxing, drinking champagne, and indulging in bad TV will give you some much-needed perspective before you go back to it. This is also a great time to get a friend, fellow writer, agent, or anyone you trust to give your manu a read before you tear it apart.

3. Read your novel!
Again with the patience. You shouldn’t start changing your novel before you’ve READ THE WHOLE THING. Seriously. My favorite method is to load it onto my Kindle–reading it in the same way that I read other books creates a much-needed separation between me and my work and makes me look at it like a reader, not a writer (if you don’t have an e-reader, a good old-fashioned printer will work just as well). Resist the urge to take notes as you read–if anything is really glaring, you’ll remember it later, and without a pen in hand you’ll stay focused on the bigger picture.

4. Fix the structural stuff first.
You wouldn’t paint a house before all the walls are up. In the same vein, don’t get bogged down by language until your book’s in good order. I like to create a new document with the reworked original text–moving chapters around, adding notes where I need new scenes, etc.–only once I have that in place will I move onto the nitty gritty.

5. Kill your darlings.
Faulkner’s advice is particularly true in the revision stage. While I typically think of it in relation to dialogue or turns of phrase (but it sounds so fancy, do I really have to cut it?), this notion is equally helpful with bigger things like minor characters or motifs. Just because you’ve written a funny younger brother doesn’t mean he deserves a place in your novel (all his wisecracking might actually be distracting), or just because you want to make your main character’s favorite book Pride and Prejudice (who doesn’t love Mr. Darcy?) doesn’t mean you should. Unless these minor elements are crucial to your story, they need to go–plus, you can always work them into another novel down the road.

6. Tell, don’t show.
I know, I know, every English teacher from 8th grade on has been saying just the opposite. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I’m working off the assumption that if you’ve finished a novel, you know you can’t get by writing sentences like “Suzy was sad.” That said, it’s important to make sure your readers are well-informed in every scene and that you don’t withhold crucial information from your readers to build drama. The readers shouldn’t be left confused, nor should the drama come from figuring out basic facts. I think a great example of this method used effectively is in the first line of The Secret History by Donna Tartt: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” You know the basics, but you’ve got just enough questions to keep you turning the page.

7. Make sure every character wants something in every scene.
This is a big one for me, because I tend to go for a slow burn, descriptive kind of writing, and I’m often guilty of sacrificing plot in the name of character development. My agent actually sent me a rant by the executive producer of The Unit to the show’s staff of  TV writers to help with this issue. I can’t put it better than he does–every character should want something in every scene. If they don’t, rewrite it so they do–or else it’s got to go.

8. Make your transitions awesome.
The physicality of scenes often stumps me–I hate writing about people arriving in restaurants or getting into cars–so a lot of the time I just skip over these points and start right in the middle. While this is not an entirely bad technique, it’s important to make sure there are a few key establishing details in every scene (I’ve personally been guilty of writing 3 to 4 pages before the reader even knows where they are). You can also use this time to make sure your chapter beginnings and endings are poignant, punchy, and keep readers turning the page.

9. Read your writing aloud.
It feels awkward at first, but I think it’s the hands-down best way to navigate trickier scenes and dialogue. If something is off, it’s going to be very obvious when spoken. You can even imagine you’re at a book signing or event–if anything you’re saying makes you want to cringe, it definitely needs to be tweaked.

10. Trust your gut–not your timeline.
Writing a novel is a LONG process, one that has always taken me about five times as long as I anticipated. When you’re nearing the end of the revision, trust your instincts to decide whether you’re really done or need to go back for another sweep. Similarly, don’t ignore a stroke of genius just because it comes at the last minute and will require more work. Some of my biggest breakthroughs have come during the last leg of a revision. It’s no fun to have to go back, and it may end up delaying a self-imposed deadline, but who ever said the writing process was easy?

2 responses to “Top Ten Revising Tips from a Writer Who’s Always Revising

  1. Generally sound advice but if you think David Mamet is a “TV writer” you should Google him…

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