The third Wednesday of each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
The Revision Process
So I’m in the middle of a fairly lengthy revision process for my latest novel, and it brings to mind a piece of advice a mentor once gave me. When I began writing short stories, I joined an online critique forum that in retrospect helped shape me in some crucial ways. It was a pretty tough, competitive space when it came down to it, and the other writers there didn’t mind (lovingly) tearing stories to shreds if it meant giving enough feedback to fix what wasn’t working.
There was a guy there called Gary, older than most everyone else who frequented the group, and I tended to see him as an authority, a friend, and a bit of a task master. Gary was fond of quick little rules and guidelines, notepad-like pieces of wisdom that could really set a young writer up for growth.
“Expect the revision process for any given story to last two to three times longer than it took to write in the first place.”
In other words, by Gary’s estimation, if you were to write a quick story in an afternoon, you’d expect to spend an additional two to three afternoons revising and sharpening it to an appropriate level. I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you how in-depth the revision process can be. Sometimes it’s pretty easy-going, but for the most part, if you’re not doing some cutting here, expansion there, general tightening of language on all levels, and if you’re not willing to kill your darlings, as the saying goes, odds are you may be doing it wrong.
So what if we’ve written a whole book? Does Gary’s piece of advice still hold up? In my experience, it does. Due to sudden and unforeseen circumstances in my life, my novel took about a year to write. So does that mean it’ll take me two to three years to finish it? Not precisely. I worked on it for a year, but in fact, I only wrote about 300 words a day for a grand total of maybe fifteen hours of actual writing per month. Fifteen hours times twelve months equals 180 hours, and 180 times two is 360. Bare minimum, that is the equivalent of fifteen full twenty-four hour days of revision. Maybe more like a month and a half if I plan on sleeping, eating, or ever seeing my wife ever again.
Now remember, that’s only the initial revision cycle. More work will likely need to be done in order to bring that book up to production quality. Realistically, once you add in the services of an actual editor, you’re looking at several additional weeks or months of back and forth nitpickery. It’s the nitpicks that save us, by the way. Make sure you get plenty of them at breakfast time. They’re like daily bowls of Wheaties. Nitpicks make writer big and strong!
It’s part of the overall level of dedication it takes to turn out a good piece of writing, right? And we all expect to have to work a little more after we’ve initially told a story, or at least we should. I’m not big on hard and fast rules. Really, I’m not. I think “rules” in writing can and should be broken now and then. Generally speaking, these kinds of prescriptions are for writers, not for readers. Inside baseball, not meant for actual spectators, you know what I mean?
Even so, there are some commonalities to this process I believe every writer can and should keep an eye on. First of all, get comfortable removing chunks of flesh from your manuscript. Just straight-up cutting large sections that may have had stuff in it you liked. Also, get comfortable rewriting everything you just took out. Only better. Hopefully. If parts of your story slow the narrative down, add unusual or unnecessary complications, or otherwise just don’t fit in with what you’re trying to achieve, that stuff’s dead weight, detritus. It’s got to go. Gird your loins, fellow word-wielder. Things are about to get messy at the slaughterhouse.
A good piece of meat isn’t born precooked, and neither is a good book. You can always resurrect some of that cut material and insert it elsewhere, but the same idea applies: if the words don’t fit, you must acquit.
Man, I’m on a roll today.
Another important thing to consider is if you want to make focused passes or not, keying in on just one element at a time, starting with larger issues like pacing and character development. This is a good idea if you’re new to the process or just like to stay organized, and it’ll probably save you some time in the long run. By making several focused and element-specific passes, you’ve got the opportunity to hone in without distracting yourself with other stuff that may change in the long run. My only suggestion for this type of revision process is to keep notes along the way. Ideas may spring to mind, better concepts for how to handle any given character or scene or larger story element, and you’re going to want to keep track of everything you intend to change for your next pass.
Admittedly so, I’m much too erratic and scatterbrained for this method, which means I tend to just charge in like a bull in a china shop and really tear the place up until its “redecorated” just how I like it. Mine is a messy process in this way, but it’s also just how my mind tends to work. Not everyone has the equivalent of sixteen trained chimpanzees careening around their heads, doing their level best to run the ship. If I don’t feed them at a regular time every day, Bingo—he’s the captain, see—he orders the rest of the chimps on strike, and then I’m in a real chimp ship pickle. Nobody wants that.
Where was I? Ah yes, serious discussion of the revision process.
A lot of what you’re going to be doing is in fact that more minute stuff, especially when you’re really getting down to it and most of your broader strokes have been made. Changing the language of the piece, the flow, tightening your syntax, all of that is important as finishing maneuvers. Just make sure you’re not revising so much you’re only shifting elements around and not necessarily improving anything. That can happen easily, which is why it’s also important during the revision process to take breaks when you need them. And I don’t just mean a break of a few minutes or hours. Sometimes you’ve got to let your manuscript go for days or even weeks just so you can come back at it with fresh eyes. The ability to forget what we’ve written is a great asset, so use it.
The annoyance and pain of all this is temporary. You have to keep that in mind. However, once they’re released to the general public, your words are forever. So now is your opportunity to line them up exactly as you want them. In the end, all you can do as a writer, as a creative individual of any kind, is your honest best. Will all your extra hard work pay off? That’s an eternal question, always in motion, and anyway, what’s your definition of success? I mean really?
I’ll have another Craft and Practice topic for you guys next month. Until then, cut a little, cut a lot, but don’t cut to the quick. The chimps in your brain may not like losing any of the good stuff. See you in June!
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Okay, I know I have been negligent in giving this blog the tender loving care that it deserves. I have been negligent in a lot of things lately, due to my husband’s illness and the care that he has required. I’ve taken leave from work, as well as cutting back time for writing and editing, but I’m trying hard to get back into the swing of things, so let’s talk about my latest endeavor. Did you catch it back there? Yep, I said editing. This has been a new and glorious prospect for me, because I’ve discovered that I am pretty good at it, and I’m learning a lot about writing, by looking at it from an editor’s perspective.
I never realized how much work really goes into the editing process. That was the first thing that I learned. I guess I hadn’t thought about it before, but it’s not just making a few corrections and sending it back to the author for repair. Oh, no. After that, the author sends the rewritten version back and you have to edit the whole thing again. Now this may sound like a pain, but I also learned that it is well worth it, for half the time I find things that I missed the first time around, or even change corrections that I had suggested back, because they didn’t have the effect that I thought they would. Many chapters go back for rewrites and then, re-editing four or five times, before I can call them good and put them in my finished folder. This is why they say you shouldn’t try to edit your own work, at least not on the final manuscript—authors can’t be objective enough about their own words, because they are too close to it. Through editing, I’ve been learning what to do in my own works, as well as what not to do. Here are some helpful things that I have learned so far, through my editing, about the writing process.
• I learned that sometimes autocorrect fixes things that don’t need fixing.
The computer program doesn’t recognize that you are writing dialog,
and sees a period as the end of the sentence, capitalizing the next word,
regardless of whether it should be or not. I’ve been constantly fighting
with this in my own writing, as well as when editing the work of others.
It also fails to pick up on things that need correcting. The computer
doesn’t distinguish between “Their” and “There”, or “Your” and “You’re”.
As long as the word has a legitimate spelling, the autocorrect doesn’t
perceive it as being wrong, even if it is wrong for the context of the
• I learned that if you work with people and can be reasonable with
pricing and flexible with financing, you are often more likely to get
the job. I guess that is true for anything, not just editing, but I do
think it makes a difference. And I look at it this way; doing the job
for a little less than I would have liked and accepting payment in
installments, is better than losing the job because it is overpriced,
and not getting paid at all. I also think that this is one way in which I
can help out my fellow writers, and I’m all for that!
• I learned that sometimes, I can get so into the writing, that I take
liberties and actually suggest ways to reword things, instead of just
suggesting ways that it might be changed. So far this hasn’t been a
problem, but I can see where it could be. I’ll have to be careful not
to step on any author toes.
• I learned that while the bottom line is that the author is the boss, I have
been amazed at times, at how willing the author may be to take my
suggestions to heart. It brings a smile to my face each time I see one of
my suggestions implemented, and makes me feel good to know that I
might actually be making a difference that improves the work’s chances
of being published.
• I learned that when I feel like I’m going to scream if I have to read
chapter two one more time, it’s time to put it down and move onto
the next chapter. That’s when I need to pick up a chapter from the
file that is still waiting for first edit, and read something fresh that I
haven’t scrutinized so many time that I lost count. And… there is
such a thing as over analyzing and it is easy to do. I’ll have to be
careful not to pick each chapter to death.
• I learned that I like editing. I was hesitant at first to get into the editing
side of the business, because I’d never done it before. No experience.
But how are you going to get experience?…. Exactly! So far, I think I’m
holding my own. (By the way, it also felt great to be able to add copy
editing services to my website as I redesigned it, and to find my name
listed in the acknowledgements of the book as someone who helped
make it happen.)
• I learned that if I do too much editing at one time, I start making
changes and correcting spelling and punctuation in everything I
read. I have to remember to consciously switch mental gears,
when I’m reading for pleasure, rather than business. Somehow, I
don’t think Stephen King would be as interested in my suggestions
as my clients are.
Well, that’s what I have learned so far about editing. I have no doubt that I’ll learn more, as time passes and I edit more manuscripts, and of course, I will share it here, in hopes that it might help you to learn something, or at least make you chuckle.