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

A no-fear guide to revising your novel.

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Revising versus fine-tuning

Revision is generally distinguished from fine-tuning, with revision dealing with fictional elements such as character, plot and structure, and even style, and fine-tuning dealing with rather minor mechanical issues. Think of fine-tuning as “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.” So should you solve the various story issues in your work before meticulously tidying up your manuscript – before going for that final roundup? Or is it perfectly fine to fine-tune while you revise the bigger stuff?

For Scharer, it’s best to start your revision process with something you enjoy. “Ask yourself which part of the writing process you like best. Is it creating a page-turning plot? Creating characters who feel so alive they almost walk off the page? Writing sentences with gorgeous imagery?” Once you’ve decided on this, plan out your revision, plus any fine-tuning. There’s much to be gained by this prioritizing, she says: “That way, you won’t lose sight of what makes your writing truly unique and brings you creative energy.”

While Morris loves fine-tuning language, she’s discovered that if she does this too early, she gets “attached to certain passages, phrases, or descriptions.” Naturally, this can cause problems when revising: “You’re less likely to be a ruthless cutter if you have phrases you want to preserve!” she says. For example: “I’ve had passages where I’ve crafted a setting description only to realize later that I don’t need the setting at all, so I have to take it out.” It’s best to avoid spending time on fine-tuning sections that later end up on the cutting floor.

Varallo takes a much different tack. Go ahead and fine-tune as you write, he says: “I don’t see why you couldn’t do both at once, really, since you’re always working with sentences, no matter what the task at hand. I don’t think you’d want to say, ‘Well, I’m just going to think of larger concerns first and worry about the sentences later’ – the sentences are the building blocks of all of those other areas. I always think of that Joseph Conrad quote, ‘The writer’s job is to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe.’ Now, he’s referring to showing, not telling, but the quote could equally be taken to mean that job of revision is largely one of surface-level – sentence-level – concerns. That’s where the heart of your revision really takes place.” So, as Varallo sees it, as you work away on fixing large matters, it’s fine to go ahead and tuneup or polish small things as well. 

 

Rounds and rounds of revision

After numerous rounds of revision, surely you’ll get tired and long for something new. How do you keep powering through revised draft after revised draft? And, on top of that, how do you keep your sanity after numerous rounds of fine-tuning when you can always think of a better way to say something?

For Varallo, “Getting tired of what you’re working on and longing for something new feels like a pretty fair definition of being a writer, I’d say. That sort of longing is always with you: the desire to move on to the next (presumably better) thing, the desire to give all the familiar limitations of your talent the slip, just for once.” But revision goes with the turf, says Varallo: “If you don’t revise your work, then you really aren’t a writer, so revise you must.”

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But don’t think of yourself as a lonely number here, he says. You can get help in making your novel better. “The best way to power through all of those revisions is to have a bluntly honest reader or editor read your pages and let you know what needs work. It’s fine if you want to keep your writing under wraps as you compose it, but once you enter the revision phase, you want to get as many eyes on the manuscript as possible.”

How many drafts are we talking about? Varallo can’t venture a specific number, “but it’s plenty.”

Morris views the whole process of writing as a growth or development process. “Because my novels are nuanced, I find the revision process is like maturing a good wine. They acquire more complexity and coherence as I work on them. So the revision process is very rewarding for me.” Each stage of the work reflects this maturing process: “The early drafts are embryos, really. The book grows up during the process of revision.” Conceptualizing her work in this manner energizes her. “That’s what keeps me going – this surprising awakening of the layers.” She revises a manuscript as much as 50 times.

Scharer goes through many revisions, though she can’t really “quantify” them since she tends to revise as she writes. That said: “I know I’m done with a round of revisions when I simply cannot think of any more changes to make to the manuscript that will make it better – I reach a tipping point where I start to wonder if I’m actually making it worse.

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When she begins to worry about this, she takes a break, perhaps “a few days or a few weeks” to look at the draft “with fresh eyes.”

“I take some time off to read, research, cook – all these activities help me bring new energy back to my desk,” she says.

If she still feels unequal to the task, she seeks feedback from another writer. “For me, that’s usually my writing group, but for you, it might be a spouse, a trusted reader, or someone else. The feedback I get from people whose opinions I respect helps me approach my work with renewed clarity and excitement.”

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