“What is your revision process,” asks a writer who came to see me about a manuscript, “and when do you know it’s done (is it ever done?)?”
A great question! Answering it, though, reminds me of the answer given by the writer Somerset Maugham about writing a novel: There are three rules for writing the perfect novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.
Writing is rewriting, as someone else once said. Revision is where a bunch of story seeds begin to come to life as a coherent whole. It’s an essential part of developing a manuscript. So here are a few tips (not rules!) that have worked for me.
- Set your first draft aside to “chill.” You want to put some distance between yourself and your story. I leave first drafts for at least a month, and often longer.
- Using a hard copy of your draft, or Track Changes online, go through it like an editor. Imagine you are reading it for the first time. Make comments and suggestions in the margin or on sticky notes. It can also be useful at this stage to make an outline of your novel. Keep it simple or you’ll get bogged down in the details. Be ruthless. As Hemingway said, “Kill all your darlings.” If a beautifully written scene doesn’t further the story, turf it.
- Open a new screen and begin your second draft anew. (My students are always horrified by this!) I usually have my first draft beside me in hard copy (so I can refer to notes). But your job now is to re-envision the work, and you can’t do that if you’re merely tinkering with the first draft. You may need to begin at a completely different point. You may be changing point of view or tense. Although some scenes or sections may end up more or less intact in your second draft, that needs to be because they really belong—not because you’re clinging desperately to them!
- Once you’ve reworked your draft, set it aside, as above, and repeat. I find I need a minimum of four major drafts (with many sections rewritten far more than that).
- I have a sense of “finishing” a work when I can’t take it any further by myself. At that point a writer needs either a very good first reader (someone who can read critically) or an editor. It’s worth it to pay an editor, especially as agents and publishing houses these days expect manuscripts to be essentially finished, with little need for in-house editing. You’ll also learn a lot from working with a professional editor. You can find one through the Manitoba Editors’ Association or the Editors’ Association of Canada. The Manitoba Writers’ Guild also runs a mentoring program that matches senior writers with “emerging writers with a clear commitment to writing.”
The poet W.H. Auden said “A poem is not so much finished as abandoned.” The same is true of the novel or story. Some writers get stuck—I’ve met those who’ve been working on the same novel for 20 years—but at some point we need to have the courage to let go, live with the work’s imperfections, and move on.
There are a gazillion books and websites on writing. This website has a useful and comprehensive list of steps to revising, including specific questions to ask of your work. Try out those tips that seem useful to you. You’ll gradually develop your own revising and editing process.
In A Passion for Narrative, the writer and teacher Jack Hodgins says that you write your final draft—and then you write your real final draft. In other words, just when you think you’re finished, you realize or discover something that needs work. Or feedback from a fellow writer or editor raises issues you hadn’t thought of. What do you do? You yell and scream and tear your hair out, of course—and then you buckle down to the next revision!
Next WIR blog post (Feb. 10): Fear, loathing and envy