An earlier version of this blog post originally appeared on A Beautiful Fiction in October 2014. Find more advice on writing craft and musings on the writing life from Erin here and join CCWA at Schuler Books & Music (Eastwood) on September 3rd at 7pm as Erin unpacks and expands on this material with her workshop Good to Great: Self-Editing Tips to Bring Your Writing to the Next Level.
It seems to me that writers generally fall into one of two camps when it comes to the subject of revision: On one side are writers who love the drafting phase of writing and dread the prospect of then going back and revising a manuscript. On the other side are those who are relieved when the drafting of a novel is complete so that they can finally get to the fun part—revising! I happen to be in the latter camp (hence the jaunty exclamation point). My husband, author Zachary Bartels, lives in the former.
Because we approach the writing process differently—he as a relentless outliner of even the minutiae with everything (everything) all lined up correctly in his head before he ever types a word of the first draft, I as a basically casual pantser who fiddles a bit with loose outlines only as a way of not forgetting ideas I’m saving for later—we also approach revision differently. Zach resists it, I embrace it. And I’m going to convince you to embrace it as well.
Over the past few years, my sister and I have taken some incredible hiking trips in Michigan’s gorgeous Upper Peninsula. And the process of preparing for and then actually taking these trips has continuously impressed upon me its value as a metaphor for writing, revising, and editing. In a nutshell:
• Writing is pre-trip planning and packing your bags
• Revising is actually taking the trip
• Editing is going through all those pictures and deciding what to share with the world
Each part of this process is important. Each depends on the others. Each is worth our time and our enthusiasm. Short-changing any one of them can make for a bad experience (even a dangerous one).
Let’s look at each of these statements closely.
Writing is pre-trip planning and packing your bags
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, for the purposes of this metaphor, if you’re going on a trip you need to pack a bag, get a map, have some sort of itinerary. You don’t just drive off at random, stop at random, and start walking off on a days-long journey into the woods with no preparation at all.
Writing is making a packing list, buying supplies, stuffing your pack, reserving campsites, consulting good maps, and planning how far you will hike each day. It’s making sure you have everything you need, gathering the essentials of your story—characters, setting, plot, etc.
It’s putting all those essential things into an orderly fashion. You don’t pack beef jerky in the same place you pack your underwear (not unless you want bears, coyotes, and wolves to take a special interest in your rear end). You don’t store matches at the bottom of your water bottle. Writing (or we might call it drafting) is lining everything up, putting your expectations out there.
Maybe in the course of planning you have to make adjustments. You thought you’d be able to get that ideal campsite, but when you tried to reserve it you found out it was full. So you try another itinerary, reroute, recalculate. Those adjustments might be called rewriting—big picture adjustments that happen as you realize your original plan may not work out right, or because it wasn’t until you really got into the planning that you realized there was a better option than you had at first assumed.
In these early stages of creating a novel, sometimes rewriting really does have to be done or else you will find yourself lost in the wilderness days later having taken a wrong turn way back in chapter four. Better perhaps to retrace your steps now, consider your options more carefully, and take the right path. After all, blazing new trails is hard work and if you’re going to do it you want to end up in the right place. Or, to put it in terms of our packing metaphor, I don’t want to get too far into my hiking trip and find that I neglected to pack my water purifier or my tent.
Rewriting while we’re drafting is, I think, the part of the writing process that can make us feel most anxious. What if we can’t work out the kinks? What if this whole trip is a disaster? What if the trip I’m planning is boring or pointless or not unique enough? What if I blow this whole thing?
Rewriting often changes everything. You realize that you need to give a character better motivation for making a change in her life, and when you do that, suddenly her entire personality changes, her voice changes, her goals change. It’s like realizing that you hadn’t thought about the fact that you’re overweight and out of shape and should not be attempting a 12-mile day over very challenging terrain (not that I’m speaking from firsthand experience or anything). You have to reevaluate and decide if making such a far-reaching change is absolutely necessary, because it will alter the whole trip. And, eventually, you come to believe that it is necessary—hopefully before you start your revision trip. Sometimes we don’t admit that to ourselves at first and we end up with pulled muscles and blistered feet and quite-possibly-permanent damage to our ego.
Once you’ve written out that first real draft, the one that gets most of your story on paper in some sort of sensible order, then you’re ready to take the trip. No one plans and packs for a trip and then says, “Well, that was fun and I can’t wait to do it again next year,” and then doesn’t go on the trip. If the trip doesn’t happen, it’s because something went wrong. We never stop at the writing part of the writing process. I’ll repeat that: We never stop at the writing part of the writing process. Revision is necessary, and it can be the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the process.
Revising is actually taking the trip
Like you, I love writing. I enjoy putting thoughts down in words on a page/screen, and I especially enjoy that mysterious reverse aspect of writing, when the act of writing actually drives your thoughts. It is fascinating to be part of the interchange between process and product, the fluid state where you aren’t sure who is in charge of the story that is taking shape. But even more than writing, even more than planning a fun hiking trip, I love revision. I know from the outset that it is going to be hard work—often the most painful and taxing work of all—but I also know that it will all be worth it.
I’m not talking about editing, that necessary nitpicking that gives you a clean manuscript, puts your story into the very best light possible. That comes later. I’m talking about actually looking around at the literary landscape of your draft and seeing it for what it is (which can be difficult at times on our own, making a hiking partner—a.k.a., a critique partner—such a valuable asset).
I’m talking about looking at individual words and phrases and judging their merit. Are they hardworking or lazy? Are they unique or cliché? Do they truly mean what you want them to mean? Is there a better one, a more complete one, a more interesting one that could be substituted to bring your writing to the next level? This is like looking down at the forest floor on a hike, noticing the individual plants and flowers and mosses, spotting the snake slithering away or the butterfly sipping nectar. It’s paying attention to the little things, because the little things are what make up the whole of the experience of the trip and they are each important. If your first readers are tripping over poorly chosen words, this is your chance to level the path. Say what you mean!
I’m talking about looking at individual sentences with that same critical eye and asking if that sentence is truly the best it can be. Does it say something important? Does it say something true? Does it say something necessary? Is it essential? Does it move the reader forward in the plot or deeper into the character? This is like looking at everything around you at eye-level on a hike. This is seeing the path ahead, seeing the deer tip-toeing among the trees, seeing the play of sunlight and shadow on the water. This widens your scope from individual words and takes into account the somewhat larger landscape of your story. If your first readers have come to a swampy area with no little footbridge in sight, this is your big chance to build one for them so they don’t have to slog through the muck (something my sister and I did a lot of on our most recent hike through Tahquamenon Falls State Park). Tighten it up!
I’m talking about examining a paragraph and then a chapter and applying the same criteria to it. Is it unique, necessary, dynamic, clear, interesting, and compelling? If you read just this excerpt, would it pull you to want to read the whole? These are the breaks in the trees that allow you to experience the bigger picture. They are the overlooks, the vistas that you miss if you are too focused on the ground. These are the points at which you (and your reader) can get a glimpse of what is coming ahead. Entice and enchant them!
Work your way through the entire hike, the entire book, slowly and thoughtfully. Enjoy the happy accidents that occur along the way, the things you didn’t anticipate while packing (writing). They can end up being some of the best parts of the trip (like when my sister and I had to walk across a beaver dam because the beaver had all but obliterated the trail! Awesome!). All of these levels, when put together, are what make the overall impression readers will come away with as they close the back cover. Did you wow them? Surprise them? Bowl them over? Did you at least intrigue them? Would they want to take that hike again? Keep revising until the answer is an unequivocal yes.
Editing is going through all those pictures
When I come home from a trip, I go through all of my photos and decide which ones to share. Even though I shoot with a digital camera and could easily upload every blessed photo to Facebook, I don’t. Why? Because they’re not all great, and I only want to share the best. I edit my trips. Because I don’t want to bore people, I don’t want them to flip through a few photos, see that they’re kind of mediocre, and pass on the rest. I want them to wish they were on that trip with me.
The lovely thing about editing is that this is your chance to reframe your trip. You can crop out the stuff that, now that you look at it again, actually detracts from the photo. You can tweak the lighting a bit to make it feel more like you remembered it actually feeling in real life. You can leave out the parts that, now that you look at them, you can’t for the life of you remember why, precisely, you had decided to include them.
Back in the day when film had to be developed, you were forced to wait for your photos, sometimes a week or more. This wait time is important. Because when you edit you want to let your book rest a bit, take your mind off of it for a while, give it room to settle and breathe, before going through it. And just like hiking a trail, you can always start again from the beginning, make the same hike, and notice new things every time, so you’ll want to plan multiple edits.
Not sure where to start on your hike? One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. It’s a veritable field guide to successful revision and editing. If you take Lukeman’s advice seriously and apply it to your manuscript, you will end up with a far better product than you started with. If you’re up for a real challenge, try Donald Maass’s Writing 21st Century Fiction. It will absolutely change your writing.