In this month’s Getting Unstuck, Jen Dupree has some recommendations for how to approach a revision, featuring suggestions from writers like Peter Ho Davies, Grant Faulkner and more!
You did it! You wrote a draft of a story and it’s pretty good or at least not bad. There’s some energy to it, some plot, some characters you feel connected to. You’re pretty satisfied with it and you think it might even be ready to send in for submission. This is the part where you need to hit pause. Step away from your story for a few weeks or even months, and then return with fresh eyes to revise. Probably more than once.
I know I’m in the minority when I say revision is my favorite part of writing. Most writers love the freefall delirium of first drafts. For me, idea-generating is stressful and I’m always relieved when that first draft is done and I can start doing the heavy lifting of revision.
As much as writers fantasize about flawless first drafts, they are like unicorns—nice to dream about but probably made up. Everyone has to revise to some degree. And revision is scary for a lot of reasons. In this episode of Write-minded, guest (and TMR guest judge) Peter Ho Davies suggests we might be reluctant to revise because “we have to acknowledge the possibility that the next draft might not work. It might not be the same failure–it might be a different one.” Revision means accepting that that first draft had its joy, its delight, its fun, but now it’s time to look at that draft with the objectivity of someone not under a spell. And once you really look at that first draft (or second, or third…), you might not be of how to even begin fixing what’s wrong.
So, here we are with a flawed draft and a good deal of self-doubt. Where do we even begin a revision? In this same episode of Write-minded, co-host Brooke Warner suggests printing out the entire draft and making notes, highlighting, and/or circling themes or plot points. The idea is that having a physical draft—and physical contact with that draft—enables you to engage with it in a different way. One thing Warner does with her printed-out draft is take “a single pass for a particular craft point. One pass for sensory details, one pass for characterization…[this] gives you a laser focus to one particular area because when you’re just doing everything, it’s too much to hold.” I’ll often print out a draft of a story I’m working on and highlight every description of a character (different colors for different characters). That way, I can see if I’ve used a description more than once, if I haven’t fleshed out a character enough, or if my characters all feel similar.
Write-minded co-host Grant Faulkner says that at the end of a draft he “might outline the whole novel to see what’s there.” I call this a reverse outline, although I don’t know if that’s a technical term. I definitely use this for longer works, but it’s also really useful for a long-ish short story. I’m not very structured with my reverse outline—I just kind of list what happens, scene by scene. It’s amazing how you can immediately see if nothing actually happens in your story (this is a big problem of mine). I imagine it can also help you see if too much happens, if things are repeated unintentionally, or if there are great gaps in the story.
And finally, Write-minded guest Peter Ho Davies suggests that “if something’s not working in a text, before we take it out, maybe we should think about doing more with it, leaning into it a bit more.” He urges the writer to use revision as a time to explore, to ask questions of the problem sentence or scene or character. I literally write questions like “What are we doing here?” in a cheap notebook. And then I just free-write until I land on something. If nothing emerges from my freewriting, maybe the scene really does have to go.
If those somewhat gentle methods of revision aren’t working, this episode of DIY MFA’s guest William Germano, author of On Revision: The Only Writing That Counts has a more radical approach to revision. He suggests that instead of tinkering with a scene or even (gasp) an entire draft, toss the whole thing out and start again. He says, “Everything that’s really important about this book is in [your] head.” He goes on to say that tinkering with something over and over can make it lose its “musicality. Host Gabriela Pereira urges listeners to think about revision as a chance to see the work again from a different perspective. Sometimes the only way to do that is to start with a blank page. Moving things around or fixing a sentence here and there might just crowd the page and confuse the work. This takes an enormous leap of faith and, while I actually have done this tossing out (once with an entire novel), I do keep a saved draft of the original on my laptop when I open that blank document. There’s no shame in a safety net!
There’s no denying that revision is not for the faint-of-heart. And it’s hard not to be overwhelmed, especially if you’re revising based on feedback. In this episode of W/MFA
guest Rachel Khong says about revision: “I had to make it a task and not get too emotional about it.” This is where taking a few weeks or months away from that first draft can be helpful. With time, you gain the ability to not be so emotionally attached to the work and that can free you up to see what a reader sees. This is my one unbreakable rule of revision: Put the story away for at least a month, read it again (preferably out loud), and then revise. (Okay, that’s three rules).
by Jen Dupree