Revise! Revise! Revise!
For over 10 years, I've heard or read from some "experts" and authors that writers should never revise as they write, but they should revise only after the project is finished. Some of us disagree.
Not revising or editing until one finishes writing a whole story or book goes against common sense and everything I’ve learned in all the years I’ve studied, have written, have taught, and have read. The reasons why I disagree are several, but a main one (and I’ve seen examples of this too many times) is if an author waits until after he finishes and then changes something toward the start, he often forgets a later part of the story affected by the change but not adjusted. A story develops from the beginning to end, and once written, any change at the beginning makes differences later in the piece, changes that are easy to miss. Thus cohesion and coherence become weak and faulty. The same result happens if a change is made toward the end but a point or event toward the beginning creates confusion because of that change.
I know some “writers” who think any major editing should be done by an editor. Let me share something I found in the August, 2005 issue of The Writer. According to Sam McCarver, the author of six John Darnell mystery novels,
In the time-intensive world of publishing, you may have only one
opportunity to intrigue an editor with your writing, your main
character and your story. And you must often do than within pages
– or the first few sentences – of your manuscript.
Editors are pressed for time and very perceptive in identifying good writing,
interesting characters and gripping stories, so they move fast through
McCarver goes on to say that an author must write the best story or novel possible: edit it, polish it, enhance it. Then he should read and make final changes – all before ever allowing anyone else to read it. Yes, before allowing anyone else to read an manuscript, the author should have spent hours improving a rough draft.
Before I continue, allow me to share an example of not editing or revising as one writes: A best-selling author (one I admired, met, and wrote reviews for her) released a new book. As usual, I had to read her latest. I discovered an error caused by not making revisions where needed. She wrote about an event, but she then had at least four chapters of action and time passages before another chapter discussed the event as it happened. When I contacted her about the problem, she told me that no one on her staff discovered the problem, caused by a change made after she finished the book. That book sold over 200,000 copies and had many reviews showing readers had been confused by that problem.
Writing a story or novel is only half the job: Revising is the other half, a most important half, of writing. Ernest Hemingway, E.B. White, F. Scott Fitzgerald all admitted the need to revise and rewrite. Hemingway admitted he cut as he wrote, yet, he would take weeks to revise a book.
McCarver’s article “How to revise your FICTION” gives eight steps for editing a person’s work. I happen to agree with his points, especially the one which states that delaying all editing until the manuscript is finished is a mistake.
However, let’s examine this author’s ideas, as well as those expounded in many composition text books and believed by me:
1. Accept revising as the other half of writing. E.B. White stated that the best writing is rewriting.
2. Adopt good editing procedures. To produce a better first draft, one should begin revising with the first word written, making improvements as he goes. As a writer completes a day’s production, he should study what’s on the screen, if using a computer. If he sees a need for any changes, he should make them while they are fresh in his mind. Then he should print what is finished.
According to Chang-rae Lee, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, he tries to polish as he goes because what leads him to the next sentence is the sentence before. "I find that it's hard to move on unless I've really understood what's happening, what comes before and where it's heading."
3. Review printed pages. Writers should print out the pages finished and set them aside to “cool.” Then they should read the printout with a pen in hand, noting corrections or revisions that will improve the writing. After making changes on the computer, writers should reprint the pages, adding to the pile of finished pages. Each day’s, or period’s, work should be the same: writing, rereading, editing, and making changes as one goes.
4. Identify errors and correct them. According to McCarver, three procedures are critical in the revision process: correcting mistakes, improving content, and enhancing the story.
The first attention needs to go to spelling and punctuation errors, typos, grammatical mistakes, and inconsistencies in tense or point of view. Although such mistakes may seem minor to the author, editors expect manuscripts to be virtually free of any errors.
5. Improve content. “What you say and how you say it also must be polished to the best of your ability,” states McCarver. “Improving content also includes considering the structure and sharpening your word choice,” as well as re-examining characters for consistency, making sure the plot hangs together, that scenes are compelling and dialogue natural, and that all loose ends are tied up.
Word choice is a topic for another editorial, but it is a vital part of good writing.
6. Concentrate on enhancement. Enhancement goes beyond making corrections and improving content and style: It means increasing the quality and impact of the writing. A techniques given by McCarver are as follows:
* Inserting foreshadowing for greater event impact later.
* Increasing the emotion in dialogue and thoughts in scenes.
* Adding or strengthening subplots.
* Intensifying the consequences of actions and events.
* Adding twists to the plot.
* Shortening flashbacks, if used, and including action in them.
* Making characters seem more real, depicting their actions, dialogue and thoughts more naturally and powerfully.
7. Do that final revision. After finishing the whole manuscript, revise again.
8. Take one last look. After revising the complete manuscript again, the author should reread the printed pages before mailing them or sending a query letter. All errors and last minute changes should be made.
All authors want to impress editors by providing a story that the editors cannot put down. Each author, through a manuscript, has only one chance to make a great first impression.
Note: “How to revise your FICTION” by Sam McCarver in The Writer, August, 2005, provided research material for this editorial as did several composition text books and notes from my files.