Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sharpen the Axe: 4 Strategies for Revising Your Writing

Last week, I wrote a post about how revision should make-up the majority of your writing process because when you have a piece of writing in front of you, rather than a blank page, making improvements and changes is generally easier than drafting a piece of perfect prose on the first try.

When it comes to revision, one of the challenges is identifying what is important. What do you keep? What details matter? What do you modify, and what do you cut?

These are important questions to ask as they each aim to achieve the same goal: a piece of concise writing free of unnecessary constructions, where every sentence builds toward a powerful and effective conclusion. The following steps are what I personally do in the revision process, and they assume that you are free of constraints like length and assignment direction. That's not to say that what your editor wants is irrelevant (it is relevant). In this case, removing those variables simplifies this particular conversation.

1. Remove your own bias. I've never been a stereotypical writer. I don't have a muse, and I don't get spiritual about my work. For me, writing is technical. I build functional pieces of art. If the form doesn't serve the function, I pop the hood, find the problem, and correct it. Many writers, however, are emotionally connected to their work. If that works for you, that's perfectly fine. When it comes to revision though, sentimentality can cloud your judgment. I've met writers that put drafts in a drawer for 6 months to create emotional distance from their work. Some pretend to be a different person when they revise. And some just force themselves to fight through the tears as they take a knife to their babies.

Personally, I had writing mentors that were blunt about their criticism. I never doubted their judgment, so I became less attached to my work. Now, when I revise, I think to myself, "I'm glad Alan didn't read that; he would have told me to stop bullshitting myself and the reader" or "Ed would tell me to jack off in private instead of in this paragraph."

2. Know the point. One of the first composition lessons that high school students receive is to know your thesis, your argument. It becomes the foundation of your five paragraph essay: I believe X about Y because of Point 1, Point 2, and Point 3. In narrative fiction, non-fiction, and even in copywriting, this lesson still matters. The point may be a specific conclusion rather than an argument, or perhaps the point of your story is more of a life lesson. Regardless, knowing what your writing is about and what it is trying to accomplish gives you a guide for evaluating the value of every sentence and paragraph in your piece.

When Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidental Billionaires and Bringing Down the House, was doing his media tour for Sex on the Moon, I tweeted him a question during a live BookTV broadcast (yes, I am one of the geeks that watch BookTV). I asked him a generic question about tips for new authors, and he said, "One of the things that has helped me the most is this: be able to summarize your entire book in one sentence. It's good for pitches, and it helps you to solidify what your book is actually about."

Now, when I write, that one sentence summary becomes a thesis of sort. If a paragraph or section doesn't serve to progress the work toward that one sentence summary, it gets cut, no matter how good it is. When I am working on book-length pieces, each chapter gets its own one sentence summary that I compare that chapter's content against, but that chapter as a whole is still judged against the larger one sentence summary.

Know the point, and work toward it all times.

3. Strip away the decorations. I am a firm believe in word economy. To hearken back to the last point, every syllable serves a purpose. In general, I prefer a simplistic writing style and attempt to use a few key descriptors so that my reader's imagination does most of the work in fleshing-out scenes. Not all writers are fans of my style, which is fine, but there is something to be learned by simplifying your writing, distilling it to its most basic pieces to see what parts are actually necessary.

Try this: take one of your short stories and delete every bit of description, every adjective, adverb, adverbial phrase, simile, and metaphor. Break your writing down to subjects and verbs. No frills. No glitter. This is the skeleton of your story. Read it once in its plain form, then go back through. For every 600 words, add up to five adjectives or adverbs, one simile, and one metaphor.

This exercise should teach you to do two things. The first: strengthen your verbs. A strong verb can do the work of 10 adverbs. As you revise, make sure that your sentences are in active voice, and try to select verbs that evoke vivid images and feelings for your reader. Second: when your descriptions are few, they stick out, increasing the likelihood that your reader will pay attention to them. When your jewelry is covered in diamonds, the individual details get lost. But when the setting draws your eye toward one gem, it becomes a centerpiece, and it truly sparkles.

4. Find a revision process that works for you. When I revise, I like to print out my manuscripts and mark them up with a blue pen. Working on a hard copy draft makes the process more physical, more like painting. I draw arrows and cross out sentences and scribble revisions between the lines. I ask myself questions in the margins. I circle problem areas. By the end, it's a scribbled mess, but it makes sense to me. For me, revising on a computer screen seems less tangible. It feels too much like drafting.

But that's me. Experiment with your work and find what process matches the way you think.

Other strategies that might work: take scissors to your work, cutting your manuscript into pieces so that you can rearrange the flow on your floor. Read your writing out loud to yourself or to your reader. Try printing it out so that you can retype it into a new document, adjusting your work as you go. Or maybe even sketch our a storyboard that represents the flow of your story.

Revision is important. It's where the magic happens. If you ignore it, you are missing out on an opportunity to improve your writing. Sharpen your axe, and start cutting away the excess to reveal the lush story underneath.

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