How many times have I finished a revision, settled back, and said, “There! That’s as good as I can make it.” But surprise, surprise, after a critique session with my writing group or a go over by one of my writing partners, suddenly I see new things that can make the story better.
The truth is, I think too many of us writers are too easily satisfied. We are content with our “first best.” In fact, our articles, stories, and novels will improve if we refuse to be satisfied with what we initially believe to be our best effort.
First we need to set our work aside so we can gain some distance and perspective. After two weeks, four, or even six, we aren’t as in love with that scene or character or line or word choice. We can see things a bit more realistically.
Too many contracted writers working on deadline don’t allow themselves this vital step. Too many pre-published writers don’t believe it’s necessary.
The first group must learn to plan for this needed distance. The actual manuscript deadline, the date the editor sets, should be six weeks ahead of the deadline a writer gives herself. That allows her to walk away from that particular project for a month, then come back to it with fresh eyes and work on changes for another two weeks. Of course times may vary, depending on each person, but there’s value in coming back to our work after time away.
The pre-published writer may actually need a self-imposed deadline or a particular goal just to finish the work, but sending it off to an agent the next day is not be the best approach. Perhaps time researching agents or learning about writing query letters, then hammering out a good one can be on the agenda. Maybe it’s time to pick a new concept or research a new location. What about developing a new character?
Then after weeks have gone by, it’s time. I tend to think if a writer without a contract can get used to working in this way, it will be easier to do so when operating on deadline.
But what is a writer looking for in this revision, now that he’s gained some distance and objectivity? I’d suggest two things that apply to both fiction and non-fiction: clarity and structure.
The first has to do with word by word clarity, but also clarity of thought. For the non-fiction writer, this means a basic logic and progression throughout. For the fiction writer, clarity means proper motivation of each character and each action, proper set up of each scene, a fully realized story world.
Structure for the non-fiction writer means overall structure with a proper introduction, key points, supporting detail, and a “bring it home” conclusion.
Fiction requires a character desire, inciting incident, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution. Along the way the character should experience development leading to a change, for the better or worse.
After the writer examines these big issues, it’s time to do another revision on the sentence level, fine tuning word choice and variety in structure.
Next is the paragraph level followed by the the section or scene level, then the chapter level. These need to be scrutinized for redundancy, consistency, and variety. All “dead weight” needs to be cut out. This may mean words, but it also might mean scenes or characters. If it isn’t contributing to the forward motion of the story or to the overall point of the article, then it needs to go.
Please note, these revisions should come after all the other edits and revisions the author makes on that earlier version of the manuscript — the one he read through and said, This is the best I can do.
Time and distance give us writers the ability to tackle our manuscripts with an unbiased eye. If we do the work, we’ll discover that revising will turn our best writing into something better.