For a long time, I did NOT understand the concept of “revision.” I’d edit, sure, but I guess I labored under the belief that “real” writers had perfect words fall out of their heads in the perfect order and once you’ve finished a copy edit, you’re done.
Ha. Hahaha. Ha.
Virtually no writer publishes a first draft. Virtually no writer publishes a first draft that they’ve only spitshined.
And it wasn’t until I really dug in to understand that revision can (and often should) mean re-envisioning your story that I really began to be a better writer—a publishable writer. Author Natalie Whipple knows where I’m coming from, as she lists “I wish I took editing seriously” as one of the things she wished she’d done differently in her writing journey:
I spent way too long doing edits that did not cut it. Sadly, it wasn’t until my 8th book that I really learned how to revise. Before that, I would do as little as humanly possible to satisfy my crit partners’ concerns. I never made big enough changes, never believed I NEEDED to make bigger changes. It was only when I really dug in, saw my story as malleable, that I truly improved.
Frequently when I get critiqued or judged, I fall prey to the natural tendency to get defensive of my work (getting better with regular practice at getting critiqued!). Granted, all suggestions won’t work for your story, you know your story best, and sometimes critique partners can be just plain toxic. But even bad advice can make our story better when it makes us take another look at our story with a critical eye, when we recognize that just because we wrote it that way, it might not be the best way.
Just because you wrote it one way doesn’t mean it’s the best way. We should always consider if there’s a better way to say what we’re saying.
I see people defend weak writing by saying, “But it’s my character’s voice.” Honestly, I think a lot of the time what they’re really thinking is that “I wrote it that way, so it’s right.” Maybe so—but could you write it better?
This issue runs much deeper than just word choice and voice: to make your work as good as possible, you may have to re-envision the novel itself. Is this characterization right? Could this theme be stronger? Is there a better sequence for these events—and are they even the right events?
This subject is probably more appropriate for a series of its own, or a hands-on class, but here are a few of the things I think of when really trying to re-envision my story:
- What is the theme of this story? What does the character learn as a result of the story? How does s/he change?
- How can I show and apply that change in the course of the story?
- Does the story overall work? Are there plot holes or unsupported incidents?
- Characters. Oh, characters.
- Do all the scenes and events of the story support the theme?
- Are all the scenes and events of the story necessary, and do they move it forward?
Is this hard? Is it worth it? YES and DOUBLE YES. Can you do it all by yourself? Maybe—but impartial critiques aimed at helping you tell your story in the best way possible can also be an invaluable tool. Even after you’ve re-envisioned your novel, these critiques help to make sure you’re getting across the message you wanted.
Because why else would we edit? Why wouldn’t we just submit first drafts and companies publish first drafts? Because there’s a better way to say it. And I think (and hope) self-publishing will ride out the same way: you’ll be able to tell who edits and who slaps their first drafts on the market, who says “I wrote it that way, so it’s right” and who says, “I did write it that way, but maybe there’s a better way to say it.”
More than anything else, real revision is the skill that will take anyone’s writing to the next level. We’ll cover lots of the above concepts throughout the secret sauce series, because when it comes down to it, the secret sauce isn’t about getting things right in the first draft. It’s about revising your way to “publishability.”
What do you think? What lessons have you learned from revision (or just thinking about it?)?