The Art and Science of Revision

Way back in college, when I was just a confused freshman, I was, believe it or not, an art major.  Perhaps it was part rebellion from an Asian upbringing where many Asian-American youth are indoctrinated into the infallibility of being a doctor, engineer and maybe, a lawyer, or perhaps I thought I was actually good at it…I have always been interested in fine arts and won some small scholarships here and there for what my freshman art professor lovingly referred to as my “decent ability to render but poor composition” on my midterm art project.  Now that art professor still haunts my vivid daydreams but I think I did learn a thing or two from him, so thanks Professor, wherever you are.

I think the hardest part, at least for me, is conceiving the ideas.  I know every writer is different and for some the writing part comes more easily, and for others, the organization is less challenging and the ideas just flow.  So once you’ve done the hard work of finishing your masterpiece what do you do?

Step One: Let it Rest. First, put it down, put it away, just let it rest for a bit, even though I know you want to shout it from the rooftops. You should definitely celebrate a little but don’t lose your momentum because you’ll need to save up some energy to revise, revise, and revise some more.

Step Two: Find Some Good Readers.  When you feel ready and have summoned up the courage, ask your closest writer friends–notice I said writer friends and not your neighbor, significant other, favorite phone a friend, to critique.  Sometimes a bit of emotional distance is good and that way you won’t damage a friendship if someone close to you tells them they absolutely hate it (exception: you are lucky enough to be like Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, real-life married husband-wife-readers).  Beta readers, whether in the form of an in-person writing group, a virtual writing group, loosely assorted group of friends you met at a writer’s retreat or residency, whoever this motley crew is, find them and ask them to be brutal.  Find them and then…

Step Three: Trust Your Readers’ Comments.  Now, take those lovely comments and ingest some salt.  Not literally. Take the time to listen and understand what your readers are confused about or what they would like to see more or less of.  Be open to what others have to say.  Then the most important and perhaps most difficult step…

From benignhumor.wordpress.com

Step Four:  Trust Yourself and Your Artistic Vision.  Use your artistic instinct and intuition to decide which editorial comments make sense in the context of your narrative.  Sit on it.  Think about it.  Mull it over.  Consolidate the most important points and find the comments that seem to garner more gravity from multiple readers.  Those tend to be the most salient.

Step Five: Revise, Revise, Revise.  Now, pen back to paper.  Ask yourself if the words, the sentence, the paragraph, the scene, serve a purpose and push the plot forward.  No one likes superfluity in writing, not editors, not readers.  But if it adds to the narrative, keep it.  Remember the difference between revising and editing.  Revision is largely for structure, the bigger picture and content/ character/ plot development issues.  Editing deals with grammar, mechanics, etc.  I think editing should come after revision but if you find a typo along the way, why not fix it?

I like to think that revising is both an art and a science.  The science aspect is merely testing it with readers, and fielding comments.  The art aspect is knowing what to incorporate and what to toss out.  It’s very akin to painting a painting or drawing a drawing.  When do you know when to stop and when a work of art is finished?  Hopefully you’ll reach a point when you’ll feel it’s finished, at least for now.  Then you can stand back and admire your work of art.

What do you find most challenging about the revision process?  Is it hard to incorporate comments from people that may not seem to “get” your story?  When do you know ‘it’s ready’ for the world?

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7 comments

  1. Great post, thanks for sharing. As someone who is currently in the revision process on my first manuscript, I think the most challenging thing is letting go of things you wrote and loved in the first draft, but may not fit into the second. There are always going to be lines, passages, scenes, jokes that make you laugh out loud, or great pieces of description that just don’t matter to the vision you have for the book in round 2. Cutting those pieces out is a hard decision but a worthy sacrifice.

    • Amira, thank you for sharing your thoughts! I think you hit the nail on the head, ‘letting things you wrote and loved in the first draft, but may not fit in the second.’ It’s all about the big picture and seeing if it adds to the story or not. What is your manuscript about?

      • I totally agree, making your manuscript work together as a whole is the most important part of story-crafting.
        Thanks for asking about the manuscript; I haven’t started pitching yet, but here’s my WIP synopsis

        After Remy’s older sister is murdered in a classroom massacre and the young Okarian Sector hides the truth behind the attack, her family goes underground. They join the fledgling Resistance movement, which has pledged to stop the Sector’s manipulation of its citizens through bio-engineered foods. Now, three years later, Vale, the boy Remy once loved, has become the man who is is sworn to hunt down and destroy the Resistance. With Remy’s life in the balance, Vale’s choices will determine the fate of the Resistance and the Sector alike.

      • I’m glad you think it sounds cool! I’ve been having a ton of fun with it as we go through the process of revisions. I’m tentatively calling it “Sci-fi YA-NA with a dystopian edge”. How’s that for a mouthful?

  2. I have gone through the editing process before and recently was introduced to the revision process and as you say in your post, they are very different. Revisions can be challenging because having “finished” a work, it feels almost like a betrayal to make certain changes! 🙂

    I have found though that making the changes can help you see the world you’ve created in a different light and it’s refreshing to know that we as writers don’t have to be wedded to anything. As the creators and originators we can do almost anything. Thanks so much for your helpful piece! I wish I had it to guide me through when I was working on my revisions, but I think I am on the right track. 🙂

    • Tameka, thank you for your thoughtful comment. It’s definitely mentally and emotionally challenging to go back and revise when you feel like it’s finished. I also really like your thought of not being wedded to anything. You can always go back and change your mind (saving multiple versions thanks to the computer is helpful for that). Can you imagine what revising was like back in the day of hand-writing and typewriters? I wonder if it was easier or harder, in a sense.


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