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Revising the rules

My 10 personal rules for revision.

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The most curious thing about writing is how many different ways there are to go about it. Everyone writing in English works by arranging the same 26 letters of the alphabet on the page, but we all arrive at the same destination in such varied ways. For every nine writers who will tell you to never-ever-ever revise as you go, there will be one who must thoroughly polish each sentence before moving on to the next. For every staunch plotter, there will be a pantser, a plantser, or a platter. Some write short and add in revision, some go long and trim later, while others still aim for a perfect draft length right out of the gate. It’s a mad, mad writing world out there, and there are no right or wrong ways to navigate it. 

The good news is that we can tailor our writing practices to the letter (quite literally). The bad news is that finding your ideal way to write typically involves an overwhelming amount of trial and error. Reading other writers’ best practices, having them illuminate their murky creative processes, is one of the best ways to find our footing as we go. I myself am still revising my own rulebook, especially when, funnily enough, it comes to revision, a process that endlessly fascinates and frustrates me. 

Here are 10 of my current rules for revision, which I must stress are only my own personal rules that work for my particular brain, hand, and heart. (If my designer would allow me to bold, underline, and highlight that sentence in a screamingly bright yellow to drive home my point, I would.) I share them partly in hopes they might help another writer struggling to create their own revision handbook, and even more so because I hope you will consider sharing your own “rules” for revision so that other writers may learn from your hard-won wisdom. Send them to [email protected] with the subject line “Rules for Revision” so that we may compile them into a crowdsourced handbook on our website or in a future issue. Until then, happy revising, dear readers. 

 

My 10 personal rules for revision

1. Write your first draft in the first light of day, before your cranky-​critical-​editor-brain has had a chance to seize the helm. (Consider naming your cranky-critical-editor-brain to humanize her, something like Maude or Mildred or Tammi Jo.) Never, ever attempt revision until Tammi Jo is awake and has had an abundance of coffee.

 

 

2. Write your first draft in a very pretty font, for courage. 

Revise your second draft in a very ugly font, for humility.

 

 

3. Draft two is not as bad as you think it is.

Draft one is probably worse than you think it is.

 

 

4. Do not tackle draft two until enough time has passed after the writing of draft one.

“Enough” is a variable term dependent on your deadline, your mental health, your schedule, and your ability to sweet-talk your editor into an extension.

 

 

5. Read every draft aloud before attempting to revise it. Mark every place where you pause or trip over a sentence. If you stumble over your own words, your reader will, too.

 

 

6. You are allowed three free failed attempts at any one sentence. If the fourth one doesn’t stick the landing, you are contractually obligated to write INSERT REALLY GOOD SENTENCE HERE!! and move the hell on. 

 

 

7. If a joke makes you laugh but doesn’t serve the manuscript, you must let Tammi Jo cut it, no matter how painful it feels. She is right, and deep down you know it.

 

If a joke makes you laugh and serves the manuscript but puts you over your maximum word count, you must not let Tammi Jo cut it even though it’s an easy cut to make. There are a thousand other ways to cull flab in a manuscript, and well-placed humor is too valuable and rare to leave on the cutting room floor.

 

 

8. If feedback feels wrong, it usually is wrong. 

If feedback feels uncomfortable, it’s usually right.

 

 

9. Write with music. Revise without. 

Write with brash, bold ambition. Revise without. 

Write with an eye on yourself, your memories, your story, your truth. Revise with an eye on your audience: their needs, their time, their attention, their understanding.

 

 

10. The more nervous you are to publish something, the more it will ultimately resonate with readers. To publish something without fear is to publish something without any skin in the game, any beating heart on the page. 

 

You will never reach readers by holding them at arm’s length. Acknowledge your fear, meet its gaze in the rearview, but never let it take the wheel.

 

 

—Nicki Porter served as the editor of The Writer from 2016 to 2022; she previously served as its associate editor. Before helming The Writer, she worked as a food editor for Madavor Media and America’s Test Kitchen. She’s also written for a number of publications and spoken at writing conferences across the country. Learn more at nickiporter.com.

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