Revision. For a writer, what is it and what’s involved?
If you’re a writer, like I’m (unsuccessfully so far) trying to be, revision, in most cases, will occupy the greatest segment of your time in writing. Writing is largely revision, the sages say. Revision is the process of rewriting your work, be it anything from very short story to a huge novel. But what’s really involved? Let’s look at the different stages of a story.
First you write down the basics of the story. That’s a rough draft or preliminary draft. That can be the hardest part; though it’s really the simplest part because you just put down the story in a rough or haphazard manner. You may have produced a first draft during National Novel Writing Month, where you tried to produce a minimum fifty-thousand word draft during the month of November, or maybe you sat at the computer and hacked out a rough draft over a nine year period putting down one sentence or paragraph a day. What matters is that you got it all down in a crude form, and now it needs revision. (The chances that you got it down perfectly the first time and it doesn’t need revision are so infinitesimally small we won’t even consider that.) Depending on the first draft, several things come into play here.
First, in my estimation, the novel needs to read smoothly. This is the simple act of reading through the draft to make sure that a reader’s eye doesn’t get caught in odd word transitions, in non sequitur, or in missed commas or periods, and so forth. In other words, each sentence has to communicate a single, simple thought. During this first revision I also look for inconsistencies. If I said a person’s hair was brown in one chapter, did I repeat that in another chapter, or did I inadvertently change it to blonde? Time factors are important. If an important event occurred on Sunday, is the next day Monday? And so forth. These are the basics and have to be right and proper or you can kiss all other revisions good-bye.
Now comes the second revision. For me at least, this is the most important. Here I tackle the more subjective parts of the story. I look for broader topics such as motivation, consistency in action and dialogue, background of the characters and how it influences their later life, interaction between characters, etc. I may also look for deliberate changes in a character, that is, when a character changes under the influence of the pressures of the story line, did I get it right. If I have an automobile crash and someone is killed, how does that affect the survivors? These broad topics are more difficult to look for and find, but they’re much more important to the overall plot. In most cases, one read-through of a manuscript isn’t going to find all these inconsistencies. Here I also look for violations of the rules of writing. Am I telling too much, or should a certain section be rewritten to show more about a character? Did I put in enough sensory detail? Or too much? This second revision may take a long time, months (for a short story) or years (for a novel) and may involve reading through it many, many times. I’ve even been known to revise portions of a novel ten or more years after I started it. This second revision can take time—lots of time—and you, as an author have to get it right. You have to know your characters intimately and get them to behave in a manner that befits the story. Characters may be weird, odd, manipulative, blood-sucking, paranoid, or what have you, but the reader has to be able to understand what you’re trying to say. That’s the important thing. Are you communicating what you want to say? Revision is the key here. Do it over and over until you get it right.
Okay, I wrote this blog post. Now I have to revise it.