The last thing many authors want to do when they finish the first draft of a book is go back to the beginning and dive in again. But that’s what it takes (usually more than once) to produce a book you can be proud of.
Revising is many things. At the conceptual level:
- It’s what an author owes her audience
- It’s what separates an amateur from a professional
- It’s what makes an okay book good, and a good book great
At the technical level, a first revision should tackle big issues, including:
- Determining whether there are structural issues that may require major reworking of the plot, characters, or point of view
- Getting rid of the parts that aren’t necessary and only slow down the pace
- Fixing the bits that aren’t working properly
- Catching and fixing inconsistencies and filling gaps
When the big issues are taken care of, it’s time to go back and do it again, this time on a line by line basis. The goal in this pass (and likely through several more cycles, if you’re like me) is to make sure that every sentence can stand on its own as a piece of good writing, and that in conjunction with its surrounding text is moving the story forward in an effective fashion.
Successful revision, however, is much more than that, and a topic far too large to cover in a single blog entry – or even a year’s worth. Indeed, if you decide to read up on the subject (and doing so is very worthwhile), you’ll find that the list of books dedicated entirely to the that subject is almost endless. The books you find will vary greatly, from general to genre-specific, from focus on grammar, to structure, to finer points of literary fiction technique and much more.
If it seems hard to believe that so much can be written on a single topic, let’s use a book I’m reading now by way of example. It’s titled Revising Fiction, by David Madden. The multiple subtitles are “A handbook for writers; 185 Practical Techniques for Improving your Story or Novel.”
And in fact each of the 185 points that Madden explores is valid and worth paying attention to. Many will be familiar; others you may have never identified before, but will recognize from your own reading experience; and some will be totally new, despite the fact they’ve been working their magic in subtle fashion from beneath the surface of books you’ve been reading for years.
My one criticism of this particular book is that the author for some inexplicable reason chose to raise each point in the negative rather than the positive, as in: “Have you committed grammatical errors?” (#44), “Does your style lack economy?” (#48), “Does your story lack the enhancements of figurative language?” (#119). Just reading the table of contents is enough to convince you that you’ve been a very bad boy indeed.
But I digress (violating technique 90, by the way). The point is that there are myriad ways in which a first draft may need to be corrected, and as many more that can be used to improve it. Completing the first task is what any author should regard as a duty they owe to their readers. Undertaking the second is what differentiates an author from a mere story teller.
From this perspective, becoming better at revising is almost synonymous with becoming a better writer, and taking that lesson to heart can make the concept of starting over more tolerable. You may even find (as I do), that there is a great deal of satisfaction to be taken from the pure craftsmanship of fixing sentences. And indeed, writing and perfecting sentences is where good writing must begin.
Without good sentences, all is lost. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact among the welter of advice you can find that focuses on plot, pace, points of view and all of the other important aspects of good writing. And yet the fact remains that a book that lacks pleasing sentences will always irritate the reader and undermine all of the other efforts the author as poured into their work.
Learning about revising needn’t be tedious. Not surprisingly, many good writers have written on the topic, either specifically or in the course of writing memoirs. A very popular and well-reviewed example on my to-read list is Steven King’s On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft.
A similarly themed book that I have read and enjoyed more than once is John Jerome’s The Writing Trade: A Year in the Life (Viking, 1992; Lyons and Burford, 1995). It’s unfortunately out of print and unavailable as an eBook, but may be available at your library. Besides providing good advice, it also chronicles the idyllic, and now ended, era when a solid, mid-list author could spend an enjoyable career behind a keyboard, largely free of the need to write to a formula, or to spend more time on social media than on their next book.
Perhaps the last thing to note at this very high and introductory level is that revision is no substitute for third-party editing. Indeed, they go hand in hand. And that’s where we’ll pick up next time.
Find the first entry in this series here.