Thursday, March 21, 2013

Strategies for Revision

I was interested by a thread on Facebook, started by writer Matt Bell,* who asked what tricks and strategies the hive mind of Facebook might recommend when it comes to making that switch from draft writing to revision and line editing.

Mindful that I’m swiping a whole bunch of ideas from a whole bunch of smart people (thank you!), I’m going to summarize some of the ideas that resonated with me.

First, my own contributions were mentioned by several people:

--I can do major, big-picture editing on the computer, but when it comes time for the sentence/paragraph level, I always print out the document and work with a red pen.  This doesn’t mean that major, big-picture editing ideas don’t occur to me at this point! But there’s something about seeing the words on the paper that make them look different.

--In that effort to make things seem different, I also go somewhere else to do my paper revising.  Away from my writing desk, with my red pen in hand, my mind snaps into a different focus…no more drifty, first draft, “anything goes” thinking.  Instead, it’s a mind focused on re-ordering a list of three items, or deciding between “said” and “told.” In the ideal world, I’m sitting outside on my deck when I revise. Being away from the internet is helpful.

--I also read out loud at a certain point, usually after I’ve inputted all the red pen revisions.  It’s rare that I’d see a major, big-picture edit at this point, but I definitely see repeated words, boring words, too many words, and typos.  I’ve also made deletions and reworked sentences, especially the last line.  I’ve read entire novels out loud, so I really recommend this step.

Here are some other ideas that emerged:

--Print out your manuscript in a different font.  Again, the idea is to try to make your mind see it fresh, not the same old thing you’ve been sweating over for a month (or longer!).

--Keep it on the computer, but put it in a HUGE font so that the sentences are shaped oddly on the page, appearing to your eye in a new way, slowing you down as you evaluate. 

--There are programs that will read text out loud: use one and see how your work sounds when someone else reads it. Ideally, I suppose it would be James Earl Jones reading your words, but I still think it would be informative to have a robotic computer voice going at it.

--Retype your manuscript. Yes, even if it’s a whole novel!  This one surprised and intrigued me…and, honestly, scared me.  I can definitely see how slowing down in this way would be helpful.  But for me, the physical act of straight typing can become a bit painful, so I would have to weigh that reality against the benefits.  Or perhaps I should look buying into a more ergonomic desk/desk chair!  But I’ve been working on a very short piece, so I think I’m going to try this retyping trick to see what happens.

--Figure out a chart that works for you of where characters are and where moments of tension are.  I have a Venn diagram system for short stories that works for me when I’m thinking about plot/end in that big picture way.

--Write out key points on cards and thumbtack around the room or arrange on a table or whatever works with your set-up.

--Take the scissors to the whole thing:  mix up scenes, sentences, paragraphs.

--Worried about deleting those perfect phrases that you might want later in another draft?  Save them in their own file so you can always go back to them (if needed).  I actually keep every previous draft, in its entirety, which makes for a crowded computer, and also a calmer mind.  How many times have I returned to one of those early drafts to get something from it?  Maybe .01 percent of the time…but I was very happy that I could!

The main point is always to find out what works for you and do that.  These aren’t magic spells—just suggestions.  What works is what works for you.

*I’m definitely intrigued by Matt’s forthcoming book, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods: 

“In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.”


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.