The Art of Ruthless Revision

By Lu Anne Stewart

I have a new-found appreciation for the importance of revision these days. I spent a good chunk of the first half of this year making edits large and small to my novel, Digging. What I found interesting about the revision process is that it requires us to think about the manuscript on many different levels, from the sublime to the ridiculous.  At the deepest, most challenging level, we’re asking ourselves big-picture questions like: Is my protagonist compelling enough? On the more mundane end of the spectrum, we’re catching typos and using the “Find” function to determine how many times we’ve overused our favorite words.

While going through this exercise, I searched around online for advice and insights from other authors on how they approached revision. Here are a few of the tidbits that I found most helpful:

“Skip the boring parts.” This quote from Elmore Leonard is deceptively brilliant. Of course, we’d all edit out the boring parts if we knew they were boring, right? For me, following this advice meant listening carefully to the input of my readers about the manuscript. If someone says that the story really picks up steam in Chapter 2, that may be a kind way of saying that Chapter 1 had too much backstory or was just plain dull.

Read like a reader. George Saunders explained in an interview that when revising, he tries to put himself into the shoes of a first-time reader. “That is,” he says, “I try not to bring too many ideas about what the story is doing, etc, etc. Just SEE what it’s doing. In other words, read along with a red pen, reacting in real-time as I go along, deleting, adding, etc. When the energy drops, then I know that’s where I have to really start digging in.”

Other authors offered similar strategies. Some say to throw the manuscript in a drawer for a week or longer and then read it with fresh eyes. One suggested critiquing it like the harshest reviewer in a workshop. For me, it helped to read as though I were an extremely busy literary agent just looking for a reason to pass on this manuscript. What weaknesses would she find? Where might she roll her eyes? Or worse, yawn?

Cut, condense, repeat. In his wise book On Writing, Stephen King emphasizes the importance of plain old cutting. Chop out everything unnecessary. He recalls a comment he received from an editor that “changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’ “

Loosen up. I’ll close with my very favorite bit of advice on the process of revision, which comes from a Joan Didion podcast you can find here. She explains that when she finishes work at the end of the day, she goes over the pages she’s done that day. “And I mark it up and leave it until the morning, and then I make the corrections in the morning, which gives me a way to start the day…I can have a drink at night. And the drink loosens me up enough to actually mark it up, you know. While you’ll just kind of be tense and not sure. Marking up something is just another way of saying editing it. Because you don’t edit very dramatically when you’re—you’re not very hard on yourself, you’re not very loose with yourself most of the day. Really, I have found the drink actually helps.”

Who am I to argue with Joan?  Fellow writers, what are your secrets to good revision? And readers, can you think of a book you stopped reading in midstream because you wished the writer had “skipped the boring parts?”



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