What I’ve learned about revisions

So I’m revising a project…again. I feel like I’m always saying that. And I should be.

As writers, we’re in a constant state of revision. Except when we’re drafting something we’re going to revise later. You cannot escape this reality if you’re in this for the long haul.

But…what the heck does it actually mean to revise?

As a baby writer, I didn’t know the difference between editing and revising. I’d move a few sentences around, swap out synonyms, break up paragraphs, add a comma…

That’s not revision. That’s polishing. It comes later.

If I’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s that you can’t be attached to anything. Not one line. (Although with my longest running WIP, I can safely say there is only one line I kept from my very first draft.)

You must be ruthless. You aren’t massaging this project or adding a layer of makeup – you’re attacking it with a knife and rearranging its bones to make something beautiful.

Does that sound gruesome? Good. There will be casualties. You must be willing to slice out subplots, kill characters, trash an entire chapter (or act!) and start from scratch when the story needs you to.

This is where you have to dismantle your ego. Is someone telling you this particular scene doesn’t work? You have to ask yourself why, distance yourself enough from the narrative to see what a reader sees in order to make the words on the page do what you intended. You have to get out of the way to let the story unfold.

So yeah. Revising is frustrating.

But there is a joy in the discoveries you can only make while revising. That’s what motivates your character to do that. This is the heart of your story, hiding right in front of you. You can’t learn it all in the first draft.

So…where do you start? Here are some things that work for me:

  1. Read your draft as a reader. If you can afford it, print it out! If not, use Word or Scrivener. You can (and should!) make notes before you make changes, whether in the margins or in a notebook, but resist the urge to actually change anything. Yet.
  2. When you’re ready to make your changes, start with a fresh document. It forces you to rethink every single line you’re adding back in, even if you don’t change one letter. You can’t fall into the trap of just moving text around if you have a blank page.
  3. Start with the big changes first. Resist the urge to line edit when you first must pull out a POV or change the concept behind your premise. This will save you hours of time and tears. Learn from my mistakes.
  4. Ask yourself “what does this scene do for my plot and/or character?” If the answer is “nothing”, cut it. It doesn’t matter how epic/cute/fun/heartbreaking it is. You have 80,000 words to make an impression. That’s less than you think. Every scene matters.
  5. Break tasks into manageable chunks. No, you can’t fix it all in one marathon sitting (believe me, I’ve tried) but you can fix that 2500 word chapter. I promise.
  6. Take care of your mental health. Give yourself breaks. Reward yourself for small victories. Burnout will destroy your career before it starts if you let it. Don’t let it.
  7. Remember that revision will take the time that it takes (unless you’re on a deadline – in which case, arm yourself with coffee, chocolate, and wine). Don’t rush to meet some arbitrary deadline. You owe it to yourself to get this right.

Yes, revising is daunting, but you can do it. I believe in you.

Disclaimer – not all writing advice is advice for everyone. You may not be able to approach revisions the way I do. Maybe you are the magical unicorn who can write a clean first draft (and if so, please share your secrets! I’ll send you cookies.)

[I’ve learned most of this from following other writers. Subscribe to content from people like Susan Dennard and Chuck Wendig. They’re smarter than me.]

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