Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, contests and more!
Start Your Free Trial

From mess to success: A writer’s guide to revision

A no-fear guide to revising your novel.

Advertisement

“Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.” —Bernard Malamud

 

Malamud’s quote can certainly be true, especially when you see your novel coming together and feel the joy of accomplishment and creation (no matter how painful the effort). Yet revision can seem far from pleasurable when the plot remains unfocused, characters lack sufficient motivation, or the language refuses to sing. Revision can seem impossible when a novel is in shambles, with no clear hope of improvement in the near future.

But if that’s the case for your own project, all is not lost.

What you need is a solid approach.

A novel is an art form, and like other art forms, it requires a method – one that helps you achieve a unified work worthy of public viewing.  

One thing is abundantly clear: Revision is part of that method. But at what stage in the process should a writer revise? And by what means? And in what order?

To answer these questions, we consulted several professional writers on their revision methods as well as their best advice for other writers.

Here’s what they had to say.

Revising as you draft

When is the best time to revise your novel?

Advertisement

If you revise as you go, will you stifle your imaginative powers? Will you lose momentum – that flash fire of creativity?

As with so many other writing issues, different writers hold different opinions.

You should definitely revise as you draft, says Anthony Varallo, prize-winning author of The Lines. “Otherwise you aren’t really writing – you’re typing. And although it might be fun to type out a whole novel in a rush, Kerouac-style, you really aren’t doing the work of writing, which isn’t merely to get words on the page but to get just the right words, in the best possible order, on the page. I don’t see how you could do that without revising as you go.”

But what about loss of momentum? “Momentum is what the reader experiences,” says Varallo, “when s/he reads the final product, not what the writer experiences while writing it. Slow writing beats fast writing.”

In writing her acclaimed first novel, The Age of Light, Whitney Scharer spent considerable time getting her first draft down. “It took me five years to write my novel, so I don’t know if I’m the best person to ask about momentum!” she says.

For that debut novel, Scharer revised as she drafted, but she’s rethinking that process for her second novel: “I hope to get to a finished first draft more quickly, since so many changes are made once you know the entire shape of the story,” she says. That said, “I’m sure I’ll still do some revision as I go along, because for me so much of the excitement of writing comes from writing sentences I actually like.”

Advertisement

Here’s basically where Scharer stands on the drafting/revising issue: “I’m a big believer in following your creative energy: If you are in a place with your draft where you are eager to get the whole story down on the page, just keep going.” But otherwise, she says, “If you’ve hit a difficult point and need to tinker with the voice, for example, then perhaps you should stop and do some rewriting. Novel-writing is a long slog, and you may as well try to feel excited about it as often as you can.”

Roz Morris, novelist and author of the Nail Your Novel guides for writers, follows the popular two-stage process of first drafting, then revising – and never mixing the two.

“I’d never try to write and revise in the same draft,” she says. “Revising is a self-critical process. Writing – or drafting – needs permission to try things, to maybe be wrong. I think of drafting like a state of dreaming – you go with the flow.”

In contrast, the revision process calls for our analytical side, she says, for “imposing order” as well as for deciding “what is useful, and what is not,” and it definitely can’t be done right away. “Ideally, you want to have forgotten what you wrote so you can judge it properly. If you’re still thinking, ‘I liked that bit’ or ‘I didn’t like that bit,’ you might not be objective.”

Laleh Khadivi, author of the Kurdish Trilogy and professor in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco, says she finds the process quite difficult: “Since there are an infinite number of ways to write a sentence or a paragraph, the process of selection – words, rhythms, order – becomes overwhelming, and I get very confused and discouraged.”

So she does everything she can to address most of these language issues ahead of drafting her novel – admittedly an “unorthodox method,” she concedes. “I usually don’t start writing until I’ve got those issues of words, rhythms, and order ironed out in my mind. Sometimes this takes a few weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years, and then when I write, I generally have it as I like it, section by section.”

Advertisement