Tips on technique 7: Revision

Extract from: The Writing Book by Kate Grenville

How much should you revise?

Some writers revise a great deal: they might write a dozen or more drafts before they're happy. They may end up by returning to their first idea, but it will be enriched by the other drafts they've written. Many writers say that revision is the part of writing that they most enjoy: they've got the raw material and they can enjoy the process of transforming it continually until it's right.

Other writers revise very little, at least on the page. For such writers the revision process goes on in their heads so that by the time they come to write they've worked through various alternatives in their minds and can go straight to a finished version. My own feeling is if you're new to writing, revision will always improve your work. And apart from improving the finished product, revision is a way of exploring options that might turn out to be much more dynamic than the original ideas.

People sometimes talk of writing that's 'overworked', that's been re-worked and re-written in such a way that it's lost its original energy. Don't let the threat of overworking your piece prevent you from revising it. Two ways to make sure overworking doesn't happen are:

  • Make sure that what you're doing is revision, not editing. That overworked feeling comes when details have been tinkered with endlessly, but the basic ideas and structures haven't been changed.
  • Be prepared to put a piece aside for a time and work on something else so that you can return to the first piece freshly. It often happens that, in writing another piece, you learn what you need to know in order to improve the original piece.

There's certainly a point where you reach a stalemate with a story. That doesn't mean it's finished: it just means you've reached the limit of your present writing skill. When you've learned more, by writing more, you may then return and finish it.

When does revision come to an end? Only when it's too late to make any more changes: when the story is set in print.

The Writing Book

by Kate Grenville

A completely practical workbook that offers down-to-earth ideas and suggestions for writers or aspiring writers to get you started and to keep you going.

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Extract from: Rewriting: A creative approach to writing fiction by David Michael Kaplan

Why revise?

In an interview in The Paris Review, E.L. Doctorow tells of the time he had to write a school absence note for his daughter. He sat down, pen in hand, and began: 'My daughter Caroline . . .' and stopped. How silly, he thought, why say that, of course they know she's my daughter. Again he began: 'Please be advised . . .' no, much too formal. He started again. The paper around him piled up, his daughter fidgeted, the school bus arrived, and finally his wife had to step in, snatch away his pen and scribble off a quick note, all to stop her husband from trying to create, in his words, 'the perfect absence note'. Was he crazy? No - just a writer doing what all good writers do, which is to devote themselves to revising their work, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, draft by draft, in order to make it - school absence note or War and Peace - the best possible work it may be. Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz has called revision 'the senseless desire for perfection'. Desire it is, but senseless it's not, as this book will try to show . . . The third thing needed - and just as necessary as talent and craft, especially if we take to heart the adage that art is ten per cent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration - is a devotion to revision, to a merciless re-working of your writing until it is the best it can be, stylistically, conceptually and dramatically. The very sensible desire for perfection. Because believe me, talent and craft will only get you so far ...

The key concepts
  • Don’t worry about fine-tuning your prose until you’ve got the bigger problems of your story under control. You can’t polish a silver bowl until it’s been smelted and cast. Just so with a story. Of course you can’t help doing some fine-tuning at the same time you’re solving the other, bigger problems. That’s natural. But don’t make it your focus in early revisions. You’ll start seeing trees instead of the forest. Map out the forest first, then start trimming trees.
  • When you’re fine-tuning, every sentence, every word, counts. Everything has an effect. Words and sentences are the building blocks of your fictional universe. They’re either working for you or against you. A weasel word here, a passive construction there, and you’ve got a limp, mushy sentence. A few of those sentences, and you’ve got a limp, mushy paragraph. Enough of those paragraphs, and you’ve got a limp mushy story—and a disinterested reader. Just as you are what you eat, your story is what you write. If you think that’s a tautology, think about it again.
  • So, when you’re fine-tuning, go over your prose with the idea of making each and every sentence as strong as possible.
  • Go over it again.
  • Go over it again. A story is finished only when it’s perfect, each and every word. Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t ‘finish’ it before it really is finished. Remember what I said in an earlier chapter about the editor who complained that he saw too many early drafts? Unpolished prose is a sure sign of an early draft.
  • Most importantly, start becoming aware of your own particular stylistic quirks and glitches, so that you can watch out for them upon revision. You may be prone to overusing the passive voice, for example, or to overusing adverbs. If so, you must become especially sensitive to these infelicities and watch out for them. Every writer has stylistic weaknesses, and it’s no shame to indulge them in early drafts. But only bad writers live with them through the final draft.