Whether you write fiction or narrative nonfiction, revision is a vital part of the craft of writing, even though it can carry a writer on a pendulum swing of emotion between the wish to have a finished product to the pleasure of knowing revision will make the story better.
Early in my efforts to educate myself as a writer, the first book I read dedicated to the subject was Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction by David Michael Kaplan. I learned a lot from Kaplan, most importantly the realization of the critical need for deep revision, moving far beyond a check for punctuation, typos and spelling. Kaplan states:
Revision is the key process of writing.
That’s where stories are made.
That revelation of how crucial deep revision is for my writing reminded me of when, many years ago, I first learned to develop my own photographs. I learned that by manipulating exposure times and using burning and dodging techniques, I could significantly improve upon that first photographic impression. It was a thrilling discovery. And likewise, with intensive revision, by manipulating the various elements of my manuscript, I can significantly improve upon those early drafts.
Another important book on revision that has proven helpful is Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer can Afford to Ignore by editor Elizabeth Lyon. Lyon covers all aspects of the art of revision in depth, addressing the need to revise from the "inside-out" and from the "outside-in," the first referring to self-knowledge (plumbing the depths of your life experiences to improve your writing) and the second referring to ground level techniques common to all methods: add, delete, rearrange, enhance, transform. Lyon writes:
Whether your story needs a lot or a little work, the fact is
that revising fiction requres skills apart from writing.
Even though I write narrative nonfiction rather than fiction, with the help of these books and other resources, I have come to enjoy (yes, enjoy) the revision process. I love the hard thinking as I pull together the bits and pieces of those ideas that come to me as I reread the manuscript, as I lie awake in the middle of the night, as I drive to the grocery store or watch and old movie. I like shifting the structure, sometimes spreading the chapters across the floor in front of me, in my challenge to keep the reader interested. I enjoy the research and the organization. It feels good to improve a transition between scenes and to make sure I have ended every paragraph as strong as I can. I like the careful shaping and fine tuning of the words and phrases in my hope that the story will help someone, entertain someone, inspire someone, or possibly inform someone of something they didn’t know before.
If you’re looking to learn more about the revision process, there are many resources. In addition to those mentioned above, most how-to books on writing include at least a chapter or so about revision. In addition to books, the Internet has a variety of articles on university and writing-related websites for writers on the topic of revision.
Here are a few:
Writers should take to heart the words of the best-selling author of Jurassic Park and many other popular books, the late Michael Crichton, who offered this on the subject of revision:
Books aren't written - they're rewritten.
Including your own. It is one of the hardest
things to accept, especially after the seventh
rewrite hasn't quite done it.
Deep revision can take your work to a higher level. It provides a learning opportunity that adds to your knowledge base about the craft of writing. And after it is complete, you will be pleased that your story has become more cohesive and compelling. And so will your reader.
What is your experience with the revision process?