Revision: check!

Customize your own rules for revision.
By JH Mae | Published: February 28, 2014


thumbnailThe writer must have two personalities. The two sides don’t have to fight, but they each must take the stage separately. Each personality has a unique and critical role to play in the writing process: The hare writes, and the tortoise revises.

The hare writes unconcerned with correct grammar or structure or rules because his or her job is to extract buried ideas from the depths of your murky subconscious, miraculously bringing forth innovative creativity. And the faster the writing, the better; these ideas must come to life naturally and meet no obstacles on their way to the page.

Although it’s time consuming, revision is the perfect – and necessary – companion to wild creativity. When the hare’s wandering mess or bare-bones framework of a first draft is finished, it is revised by the tortoise, who perfects the draft using revision templates, a method I developed to make sense of a world overflowing with writing advice.

How it works

Creative writing is bound by some fairly basic rules, and you can easily drown in them if you seriously study the craft. Unfortunately, when you’re pounding the keyboard (or rapidly flourishing a pen) bleeding your latest story, chances are you won’t remember rule number three – let alone number 234.

I was inspired to create revision templates after reading several books and blogs on craft. Along the way, I wrote categorized notes on what I considered the most useful advice, but the notebook molded on my bookshelf. Then one day I read the revision chapter of Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s Writing Fiction, and one line sparked a revolution in my writing process: “You may choose to spend whole drafts focusing only on a single craft element.”

Like most genius ideas, this piece of wisdom seemed obvious once shoved under my nose. When I condensed revision into a well-organized, step-by-step process, the trepidation I felt before picking up that unforgiving red pen vanished. This revision method significantly strengthened my stories and unexpectedly let my hare run free.

During a recent revision, my template on character development revealed an underdeveloped character. In the hierarchy of revision templates, character development is number two. Strong, well-developed, flesh-and-bone characters are key to a great story’s framework. Without them, everything falls apart.

I’d already used template number one – plot and structure – to create a more dynamic beginning, build a cause-and-effect chain of events and sharpen the story’s tension. But when I got to character development, I found weaknesses in my main character: How did the story’s events affect layers of personality? What was the inner journey? Did I reveal personality through actions, speech, appearance and thoughts?

I couldn’t answer these questions because I didn’t know the character well enough. So I revisited his back story and filled in the empty spaces, and the result was a much stronger character. Without the template pointing out that I needed to identify the character’s moment of truth, making sure behavior was consistent and that physicality reflected feelings and personality, I wouldn’t have remembered to look for those elements.

Make your own

Revision templates apply exhaustive advice to a work in progress by converting that advice into categorized checklists. These checklists are then used to revise a WIP, one by one, narrowing in focus as the process moves forward. To create your own revision templates, try the following.

  • Collect writing tips gleaned from books on craft, writer blogs or even what you learned reading a novel or short story. Save them by whatever method is easiest for you. What you collect will reveal your priorities for strong fiction and help identify where improvement is needed.
  • Categorize gems of wisdom into character development, description, dialogue, theme and so on. You need to make sense of what you’ve learned and keep it all straight. This is crucial for the next step.
  • Review customized writing tips and crystallize the most important ones, or combine a few into one line questions such as: “Does your beginning drop the reader in the middle of the action?” You want a checklist here, not another heady paragraph of advice. Brevity streamlines revision.
  • Organize your templates by level of detail, which correspond to the order in which they will be used. My revision templates are organized in this order: plot and structure; character development; dialogue; setting, mood and atmosphere; description and detail; theme, symbols and metaphor.

Although the golden rules of fiction writing should appear in your templates, no two writers’ templates should be the same. Your revision templates will be your own creation, tailored to your writing style and goals, your weaknesses and strengths. This customization is important because it ensures my story is different from yours.

For example, your plot and structure template should ask you to identify your story’s dramatic question. The dialog template should make you determine each spoken line’s purpose, and the template addressing setting should remind you to add sensory details. These are solid fiction rules.

But some rules are more fluid. My details and description template could include questions that remind me how to create lyricism with my writing; this isn’t a priority, so these reminders aren’t listed. You may not like the LOCK plot method devised by James Scott Bell, preferring more organic guidelines – include those on your plot and structure template instead. If your sticky spot is grammar, you can add a whole new template to address that weakness.

Some may argue that distilling creative writing into strict rules suffocates the imagination. But stories need structure as much as creative vision. The hardworking tortoise and the wild hare give you both – the tortoise providing the safety net and a treasure of helpful advice, the hare hopping freely into untapped corners of your creative mind.

These two personalities couldn’t be less alike. But in this case, the result isn’t fighting and discord. Instead, the old adage rings true: Opposites attract.

JH Mae is a freelance and short fiction writer in New York State. She has been published in Hello Horror and writes for the Lake Champlain Weekly.

  • Heather Villa

    Wonderful!

    JH Mae shows how the revision process is a vital part of a writer’s persona.

    Heather Villa