24 July 2012

How to be a published writer: Step 3

Step 3: Revise.

Once I've shared my work (Step 2) and have gotten feedback on it, it's time for revision. (Also see my post "Every writer needs an editor" for ideas on what types of feedback might be helpful.)

What's the purpose of revision? Three things:
  1. Clarify the vision. What do I want this piece to do? What values do I have that I want it to support or communicate?
  2. Evaluate what's there. How does what's there serve (or not) that vision? What did I do that wasn't intended, and do I like the results?
  3. Decide what needs to be changed/added/cut in order to better serve the vision, and then do it.
For me this is hands-down the hardest stage of the writing process because it requires both critical and creative thinking. In the writing stage it's all creative: my task is to let things flow and reserve judgement. (That in itself is incredibly difficult for me, btw.)

But in revision! Oh, lord, in revision I  have to move back and forth between evaluation and creation, between judgement and the judgement-free zone that makes it possible for me to create. It hurts my brain just thinking about it. (For more concrete examples of how revision can be challenging, see my posts about getting stuck and unstuck while revising the novella.) It's in this stage of the process that I lean most heavily on my editor and more sophisticated readers. I need all the support I can get. Such as someone to bounce ideas off of. And someone to tell me I'm not crazy.

One thing I'd like to note is that, to my mind, there is an important distinction between revising and editing. Editing is the process of tinkering with wording and sentence construction to make the writing flow or sound better. That's not what I'm doing in this phase. In the revision phase I'm cutting out chunks that aren't working or aren't central to the piece. I'm adding new sections that help flesh out characters or anchor a scene in action or explore other sides of a theme. I'm making sure that the character development makes sense and filling in any huge gaps that threw my readers for a loop. I'm working on clarity and organization. Big-picture stuff like that.

Okay, so I might get sucked into editing a bit here and there, but I try to stay away from it for two reasons: first, it's way easier to edit than to revise, and if I let myself go on an editing spree then I get caught in that loop and use it as a procrastination tool; second, if I edit before revising then I end up changing sections that get thrown out in the end, so it was time not well spent.

Also important to note is that it may take multiple revisions to get a piece to publishable, plus a round or two of editing/proofreading. Once I've solved problems that distracted readers the first time around, they may now notice a couple other niggling issues that were previously overshadowed but now stand out clearly. So I may repeat Steps 2 & 3 of my process several times before moving on to Step 4: Editing and Proofreading.

Which brings me to a very important question: How do you know when you're done revising?

My current thinking is that I'll never be done revising any of my pieces. Even once something is published, I reserve the right to continue tinkering with it until the day I die. That said, at this stage in my career I'm limiting myself to two revisions. If after two rounds of revision, a piece is still not publishable, I'm going to set it aside and work on something else. Otherwise I run the risk of throwing too much time and creative energy into trying to make one thing work, hanging all my hopes and dreams on it, instead of moving on to new work.

It may be that in time I'll come back to that piece I set aside and be able to see it more clearly. In my fantasy, my future self will look at something I've set aside and say, "Well of course! All it needs is a little (alien invasion/changing of the word "and" to "but"/complete rewrite of the beginning, middle or end), and it'll be golden!"

In my fantasy, my future self will not only have the distance from the piece necessary to see it objectively, but will also be a far more skilled and sophisticated writer, capable of making absolutely anything interesting. Even a scene about doing laundry. My future self will be able to write a laundry scene so engaging that you will laugh, cry, and be instantly inspired to throw a load in the wash just so you can reminisce about that captivating scene where the protagonist was doing laundry. Hells yeah.

Previous posts in this series:
Step 1: Write
Step 2: Share it

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