Revision – Nice to see you again

Something I should have told you in the beginning:  Don’t re-read your work too much when you’re in the drafting stage.  It’s okay to read the last few pages, but reading the whole thing over and over?  That’s obsessive and counter-productive.  You’re too close to it.  You need some distance.  Anyway, right now you’re just trying to make word count, and too much self-reflection often paralyzes writers.  In fact, why are you reading this right now?  Go back to writing.

Are you still there?

Step away from the manuscript.

You’re still here?  Okay.  No big deal.  When you’re all finished writing at the end of this month, don’t re-read it then, either.  If it’s handwritten, put it where you aren’t going to see it for a few days.  If it’s digital, copy and paste the words into the NaNoWriMo counter, and save several copies, at  least one of them somewhere besides your home computer. *

Revision means re-seeing.  When you have been looking at your writing for a while, it becomes too familiar, so you have to make your writing strange before you can see it properly.  Let that manuscript marinate.  At least a week.  And then, print it out or view it on a different computer than the one you usually use, or in a different font.

Read it slowly, with a glass of lemonade handy.  Don’t edit the spelling, grammar, or mechanics.  In fact, don’t edit it at all. The odds are good that any cosmetic changes you make at this point will be things that you take out or rewrite.

Right now, you’re looking for the big revisions.  The places where in order to make word count, you obsessively described the protagonist’s kitchen.  The spots where your character suddenly changed from one kind of person to another one entirely.  The missing subplots, or the spots where you introduced a character and didn’t do anything with her.  The things that don’t ring true.  Make notes, but in a separate notepad.  DON’T EDIT IT.

You might notice some very big holes or something that needs to be changed entirely.  It’s okay.  You can turn the manuscript from bloody zombies to a middle-grades novel, a thriller into a cozy, if that’s what your novel should be.  You can re-frame your memoir to be about your mother instead of your children.  That’s cool.  But put it away again for a few days.

Then get it out again.  Make the big changes you want to make.  Take as much time as you need.  This is an important stage of writing.

When you think the manuscript hangs together pretty well, now you can fix the little stuff.  Here’s how you do that:

Read it out loud to yourself.

Seriously.  Read it out loud.  I don’t care how long it takes.  Because revision involves not just re-seeing but re-experiencing your writing as if it was new.  When you read it out loud, you will find all those things your brain filled in for you.  The repeated words, the missing words, the incorrect words, and many, many little annoying errors that somehow crept past you.

Once you’ve done that, then you can ask someone (or pay someone) to read it for you again, because they will see the things you didn’t see in all your other passes.  Whatever you do, don’t argue with that person’s suggestions.  Listen to them gracefully, and say thank you.  You don’t have to take all of them, mind you, but you do have to be polite.  Put the manuscript away.  Then re-read it again, and decide whether your reader was right or not.

Tomorrow: This is the end (of the month)

* I wrote about half of a book once, didn’t come back to it for a while, and when I returned I found I had somehow deleted the directory it was in and had to re-write it. It wasn’t as hard as it sounds.  I had an outline.  And somehow, once you’re written something, you know how things go.  That was a weird sensation, though, realizing all that writing had vanished.  It was nice to know I could survive it.  Seriously, though, save a copy in Dropbox or on a thumbdrive.
† Lemonade worked for me.  I sat out in the back yard, too.  But it was summer. Tea in the living room will work.  I don’t drink alcohol and I can’t imagine it would be a good idea for serious work, but YMMV.
‡ I read both my novels out loud to myself.  You don’t have to do any acting, just say the words.  My students hated it when I told them to go out into the hall and read their papers out loud to themselves, but invariably when they came back they told me with great surprise and pride that they had found all kinds of mistakes, as they had discovered themselves.  It worked better than working with a peer, because fellow students were either too polite or too picky.


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