Writers are a lot like sculptors, except that we have an extra step. Sculptors take a block of clay and cut away all the parts that don’t look like a horse, or a knight on a steed, or a bust of Donald Trump. Writers, however, start with nothing and have to make their own block of clay. We call this the rough draft. That’s our extra step. Like a block of clay, our first draft is a giant, amorphous blob that, once it’s created, we must shape and carve and polish. We refine and hone this draft until it is as close to the vision in our mind’s eye as we can get. We call this step revision.
I love revision. Creating the first draft is fun, but it’s always given me a greater pleasure to tinker with the words, sentences, and paragraphs after they’ve been laid down on paper. I love sculpting the overall structure, smoothing the corners, shaping sentences and paragraphs, and coaxing just a bit more nuance out of individual words. I tell my students that revision is the most important part of the writing process because you’re taking what you have and making it better. Just yesterday I saw a list of tips for writers and one of them said, “Deletion is holy.” Amen.
If you break the word down, you get “re-” which means “again,” and “vision” which means “to look at.” So “revision” really means that you get to look at your work again for the purpose of improving it. Simply handing in your rough draft to me as the teacher (or, in your case, to an agent or editor), means you’ve missed approximately three quarters of the process.
The two most basic approaches to revision are Global revision and the line edit.
Global Revision. As the name suggests, in a global revision you look at the piece in a holistic manner and get a universal sense of the work. You concentrate on structure (Is it too long? Too short?), organization (do I have enough of a hook? Should I move that third paragraph? Does my conclusion end with a whallop?), and unity (do I stay on topic throughout? Does chapter 12 need to be cut entirely?).
The Line Edit. After the holistic assessment of the global revision, it’s time to get specific. In the line edit, you take the piece line by line and make the individual changes that are intended to make the piece sing. This is where the magic happens. Look for places to improve your sentence variety (including the flow/rhythm of paragraphs and their appearance on the page). Clarify muddy sections by adding commentary, detail, or explanation (or just write a better sentence). Substitute specific nouns (apple, California Craftsman, 1970 Chevy Nova) in the place of general ones (fruit, house, and car).
Switch out Replace two weak words with a single stronger one.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about the “down” draft and the “up” draft. In the “down” draft, she says, you get the story down. In the “up” draft, you fix it up. Excellent advice. Another good piece of advice is that whenever you’re revising, make sure you read the piece out loud. Any place where you stumble, or where it’s bumpy, or where it’s hard to follow, is a place you must fix. An English teacher mentor of mine (the woman I credit with making me a teacher) used to talk about the fluidity of reading a student’s essay. “If I’m reading the paper and I have to stop,” she said, “there’s a problem.”
Improving your writing requires that you use both global revision and the line edit. Developing your skills in these two areas may not inspire a creation that looks just like The Donald, but it will certainly be better than the block of clay you started with.
Tell me about your experiences with revision.