Apply method to your nonfiction revision approach
Here's one author's suggestion for a process to improve your nonfiction
Published: February 10, 2011
|I've always loved those old photographs of the great writers of fiction sitting at their desks. Nabokov with his index cards. Fitzgerald at his typewriter. Flannery O’Connor in bed with a lap desk on her knees. But I’ve always wondered where The Piles were: the unscalable mountains of interview transcripts, clipped-out articles, the notes jotted on napkins, the first, second, third and 15th drafts.|
Maybe I’ve never seen The Piles in these photos because the sort of dross found around the desks of nonfiction writers is the exclusive detritus of their genre—the residue, the inevitable footprint, of the writer who aims to tell a true story. Most of us nonfiction writers are, in our writing lives, pack rats.
It’s not just our desks that are susceptible to hoarding. In the course of all that research or self-examination, many of us become besotted with our material. We’ve all read those works of history, narrative journalism and memoir that say too much. They go off on uninteresting tangents, slip in impressive but irrelevant statistics, take us through an old curiosity shop of whimsical asides.
The only remedy for this kind of literary caching is ruthless, methodical revision. In fact, this is really the only effective self-help for nonfiction writers.
Writing a work of nonfiction is an evolution of sorts: The story changes over time, getting better and better. But the process is not tidy. My first book, Red River Rising, began as a simple meditative essay on the meaning of place. Grand Forks, N.D., had been ravaged by a catastrophic flood in 1997. The historic downtown was a necropolis. People who had lived there for 40 years had left, or were living on the outskirts.
As I began writing, I learned more of the backstory. That the entire city blamed the National Weather Service for miscalculating the flood crest that year. That the charismatic ex-mayor, a grandmother, had been voted out of office in a nasty election. That the urban development director had gotten too powerful and tried to take over the city’s redevelopment, alienating city council members who then demanded his dismissal. That figuring out the circumstances surrounding “the biggest mistake in National Weather Service history” would require a crash course in hydrology.
Suddenly I was incorporating economic theories, disaster sociology, political science, hydraulic engineering, geology, history, documents secured from a Freedom of Information Act request, newspaper articles, textbooks, photographs, interviews and observation into a piece of nonfiction that no longer resembled an essay. It was a book.
But it was a messy, unwieldy and totally unreadable book. I had to revise.
Revision is an essential and dreaded part of the writing process. Few if any writers can create a beautiful piece of writing in one draft—and even if they do, I guarantee you it can be made better with revision.
Following is my suggested approach to the process. Choose a topic, using an existing scrap or sketch you’ve saved, or open up a piece you’ve already been working on.
1. Get it all down. Quality is not the utmost concern here. Hemingway said the first draft of anything is garbage. Embrace this sentiment. Don’t self-censor, don’t worry about going off on tangents. There will be time to fix things later, but you can’t fix what is not there. This stage could take days or weeks.
2. Let the piece cool off. Unless you are on deadline, leave it alone for at least two weeks. This is essential. Don’t even peek. If ideas, words, angles come to you in the interim, jot them down in a journal to deal with later.
3. Revisit your piece. After two weeks away, you’ll see your work with fresh eyes. Now is the time for big revision. This round addresses major issues; leave line-editing and word-editing for the next. Of course, if you see grammar mistakes and misused or weak words, change them. But don’t concentrate on these sorts of edits at this stage. Look at the big picture. Do I have an angle? Do I have too many? Which one’s the most compelling? Is the structure clear? Does it serve my material well?
The answer to the latter question is likely a big no. You wrote with abandon. You indulged. Your structure probably does not exist yet. So now is the time to begin ordering your material. Do you have enough background material? Do you have too much background material? Is there enough human interest in the story—i.e., are there enough people? Too many? Is there anything you need to expand, deepen, with more research?
Give yourself at least two days between steps 3 and 4 during which you do not look at the material.
4. Begin the cuts. Armed with a better perspective on the work, thanks to your earlier revisions, you will be well prepared to identify “extraneous material.” Cuts are so important in streamlining a piece of writing. We writers are undeniably self-indulgent in our work: We ramble, we follow uninteresting tangents and expect our readers to tag along. That’s part of our charm. But at the end of the day, revision requires the excruciating process of cutting chunks of good writing, of pet topics. Ask yourself here: Am I telling a good story? Have I in mind a specific point? Begin making decisions on these key points and implement them.
5. Write the middle draft. Examine the smaller things, like your opening. Is it the best possible opening? As an editor, I invariably found that the true beginnings of my writers’ work were in the third, fourth or fifth paragraph. Never the first. I called this the “clearing the throat” effect. Search your manuscript for a better opening. A stark line. A poetic sentence. Even a quote from one of your “characters.”
How are the transitions? Are there paragraphs that seem unlinked or tenuously linked? Are there non sequiturs (common in early drafts)? Do your points and paragraphs build on each other? How is your pacing? Are you moving too fast in some parts, sluggishly in others? Is too much research integrated into the piece? Is more research needed to solidify a point?
Note: While working, keep in mind that while this article outlines revision in a series of steps, drafts are not static stages, but fluid elements of a work-in-progress. So if you have to go back and rework the structure even though you have reached the middle-draft step, do it without hesitation.
6. Print out your work for the line edit. Treat the manuscript like an editor would. First, look for grammatical mistakes and misspellings. Do not rely on your word program’s spell-checker. While it will catch egregious misspellings, it will not correct “diving” if you meant “divining.”
Now begin editing line by line. How can you improve each sentence? Are you writing in passive voice too often? Are your sentences convoluted? Have you mixed any metaphors? If you’re on assignment, watch the word count. Don’t leave it to your editor to trim for you.
7. Finally, read your work aloud. At this point, a strange thing happens. After having worked with the material for so long, you become blind to errors. A trick I’ve learned is to read the piece aloud. It is remarkable how many mistakes your ear will catch that your eyes did not. Typos you missed on the page will be obvious when you hear the words aloud. Clumsy or dull sections will become glaringly obvious.
Should you seek outside advice during revision? It depends on the way you work. As a rule, I do not show my work to others until I’ve completed my middle draft, but other writers have a reader for every draft. Be aware that an extra set of eyes and the advice that goes along with it can complicate matters during the early stages of revision.
Also, be careful whom you ask to read your work. Friends and family will rarely give you an honest opinion. Overly polite people are useless to a writer, as are overly negative people. The best solution is usually a swap with a writer: You read her work and she reads yours.
How do you know when you’re done? Tough question. In truth, the pieces we write never leave us entirely. But there’s a point in revision when the changes become minor, almost fussy. Stop short of fussy. Don’t tinker (the act of changing things for the heck of it). Trust your judgment as a writer. When the work’s reached the point of clarity, of transparency, chances are it is complete.
Ashley Shelby is the author of Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City. She is director of the Mill City Writers’ Workshop in the Twin Cities.|
This article is adapted from a chapter in Now Write! Nonfiction, edited by Sherry Ellis and published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
Take two pages of existing writing or write two pages on any topic, then remove 10 to 15 adverbs and/or adjectives from it. Next, remove five sentences. Add two new sentences that present new but relevant material, description, characterization or imagery. Find a stale image or phrase (look for clichés, in particular) and replace it with something fresh. Finally, replace your first sentence with one from deeper in the pieces. Continue revising based on the new beginning.