by Matt Salesses
To celebrate our Independence (from first drafts), I’ve compiled 20 or so snippets on revision from some really wonderful writers. Due to my own lacks, most of the thoughts are on fiction, though I promise we’ll hear from a few other poets and nonfiction writers as the month goes on. If you’re a poet or nonfiction writer and want to chime in, please do. Again, I’ll be collecting revision tips from the comments and including them at the end of the month. The more we know, the more we know.
The thoughts below cover a huge range of topics, from tricks with Microsoft Word, when to start over, how flash fiction is different, the music of language, hatred for revision, obsession with revision, advice from others, quotes, insights into the editorial process, hoarding, retyping, rewriting, and the opposite of “killing your darlings.”
In Charles Baxter’s essay “Against Epiphanies,” the author makes a compelling case for resisting the impulse to polish up false insights and offer them to the reader as genuine perception (I’m paraphrasing). To lie to ourselves, in our own stories, sometimes without even realizing we’re doing it. Over time, the core of my revision process has become concerned with trying to identify the moments in a story that are letting the characters down by reaching for the easy and the false instead of pushing for something truer. In short, weeding out the bullshit. I find this to be a profoundly difficult practice — I fail at it constantly — but it’s what I’m working toward.
I also read everything aloud. I have probably read my novel draft aloud 15 or 20 times by now. If I tallied the hours that’s taken, I would cry.— Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us
My revision system is hoarder-friendly and all-inclusive. When I’m revising, my brain goes into a sort of TiVo-mode (ok, it was already in a sort of TiVo mode) of rapid scansion: everything I see and encounter in the world is a submission for consideration on behalf of my characters. I’ll come across a plant in Lowes that I’m sure my downtrodden secretary character would have in her apartment and I’ll write the name of it down on whatever I’m carrying on my physical person — a gum wrapper, in a “to-self” email on my phone if I remembered to bring my phone, or I’ll just use my actual physical person. I doubt I’ll ever get tattoos on my lower arms because they’re my go-to perma-notebook. I need the blank space.
Eventually I sit down with the pile of scraps that I’ve written all over, as well as printouts of all versions of the story’s draft, and extra scenes I ended up cutting for the time being but keep in a separate Word document. Then I do a sort of visual collage. This makes my office look like that guy’s paranoia shed in A Beautiful Mind. But I find it helpful to do a type of storyboarding and treat the piece more like a Lego set than a puzzle. Rather than everything having its specific place, I think there are an infinite number of stories you can build depending on how you arrange the pieces. So that’s the biggest key in revision for me — looking at all of the story’s possible narratives and deciding which one I like the very best.— Alissa Nutting, author of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls
I love to revise my work. To go back into something. Tinker. Change a word. Delete a sentence. Add a sentence. Add another sentence. Tweak the dialogue. Move a paragraph. Move it back again. Turn two sentences into one.
Revision often feels like cheating. Like I am not writing.
I feel like I am not writing, but the pages somehow get written. It is pretty much impossible for me to open a document and just jump straight back in. Instead, I go backwards. Two steps back, one forward. By the time I have finished a first draft, I may have written twenty. I don’t know any other way.— Marcy Dermansky, author of Bad Marie and Twins
As I revise my novel, I’ve been thinking that the sound of each sentence is at least as important as its sense. Or maybe that’s not it and maybe, in some way I haven’t quite understood, the sound is the sense: as Frost put it, “sound is the gold in the ore.” However it works, I’ve realized that if a paragraph feels wrong, I often can fix the problem by zeroing in on its sound.
Gary Lutz says a lot about the music of language in his piece in The Believer, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” which is available online and which, every time I read it, sets fires up and down my spine. In it, he references Susan Sontag’s notion of “lexical inevitability,” an idea I love, because she’s right, he’s right: sometimes a phrase or sentence locks into place, exactly what it should be. Or, as Fitzgerald says in The Crack-Up: “‘The Grecian Urn’ is unbearably beautiful, with every syllable as inevitable as the notes in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or it’s just something you don’t understand.”
On the other hand, is it possible to take this obsession with sound too far? Probably. Sometimes I think of this caution — or is it a call to arms? — from Leonard Michaels’s novel, Sylvia:
Writing a story wasn’t as easy as writing a letter, or telling a story to a friend. It should be, I believed. Chekhov said it was easy. But I could hardly finish a page in a day. I’d find myself getting too involved in the words, the strange relations of their sounds, as if there were a music below the words, like the weird singing of a demiurge out of which came images, virtual things, streets and trees and people. It would become louder and louder, as if the music were the story. I had to get myself out of the way, let it happen, but I couldn’t. I was a bad dancer, hearing the music, dancing the steps, unable to let the music dance me.— Reese Okyong Kwon
My writing process doesn’t really make a distinction between “writing” and “revision.” To me, revision is writing and writing is revision. I tend to begin any work with longhand sketches of paragraphs, almost a semi-outline of interesting events and observations and phrases that should take place, and when I type those sketches into the computer I also expand them, flesh them out, and hopefully improve the writing. And while that process continues I also print out the pages to that point. And I carry those printed pages with my notebooks and pens, and to those printed pages I continue to add and cut and improve the prose, and when I type new sketches into the machine I also input my changes to the typed manuscript. So the finishing of one draft is really the culmination of five or six overlapping stages of composition and revision. And the morning after one “draft” is finished I begin the second “draft” by printing out the first and, again, carrying around the pages with notepads and pens, adding and changing and sketching new paragraphs. After a certain point there are fewer paragraphs needed to add, fewer that need crossing out, and something like a story or a novel rounds into shape. Somewhere in this process there is typically some period of research, and I tend to sit with my heaps of pages and pens and notepads with books opened before me, jotting more notes, developing more paragraphs. I have recently begun experimenting with stopping work after each draft, as is recommended by many. I can see some benefits to this — for one, it allows the subconscious to work out problems, to come up with new inventions, to heal from the constant trauma. But there is something also to be said for the feverish momentum of the continuous process.— Robert Kloss, author of The Alligators of Abraham
I read that the Grateful Dead kept a sign in their recording studio that said:
You put it down heavy, strip it down lean.
Got to lay it down dirty and play it back clean.
Now, the Dead aren’t exactly known for their mind-blowing studio work, and I don’t know much about making music, but something about those lines stuck with me. They’re a reminder that what we call writing consists of two related but fundamentally different tasks: the initial draft and revision.
The first part is what most people – most movies, anyway – seem to think writing is: the empty screen, the rush of inspiration, an idea pursued fearlessly: “got to lay it down dirty.” Don’t worry about the details, don’t judge, see where the story takes you. The joy of discovery, deep into the night.
At least as difficult, never as much fun, and certainly a lot more time consuming is the second half of the equation: the endless rereading, editing, tweaking. The application of taste and good sense by the harsh light of day. This is where the writing gains depth and dimension, where bits that were hastily sketched before are fleshed out and thought through, again and again, until reading it out aloud doesn’t make you cringe anymore: “play it back clean.”
Writing happens in layers, carefully applied, cut, reshuffled, blended, extended, and deleted, until the final product appears easy and flows well. It’s tempting to say that revision is where the real work happens, but neither part of the process is worth anything without the other. When I’m working on a novel, the crucial first step every day is to decide whether to plunge ahead or to rework a previous scene. The book grows out of the recursive tug-of-war between the two.
Worth noting: the text on the Dead’s sign is from Robert Hunter’s original version of “Fire on the Mountain” – but the lines were cut and never performed by the band.— Jurgen Fauth, author of KINO
I want in my stories for each sentence to seem as though it could only have originated from the sentence that comes before it. I want some part of a sentence in a story to create the action of the next sentence. I’m not sure I always achieve this goal, but I try.
I do not consciously think of revision as a separate process; instead, it occurs as I go, I suppose. When I write a story, I write as much as I can until I get stuck or bored or the writing session is over. I save that draft as my first draft. When I later work on that story, I open the first draft on one side of the screen and I open a new document on the other side of the screen, and I begin retyping the first draft into the new document. I used to print off the first draft and prop it up next to my monitor, and then I used to use two monitors, and now I have a large monitor that can fit both documents comfortably next to each other on the screen. Anyhow, as I type, I make changes as I go according to how the language of each sentence rings or twists or empties or turns against itself. When I stop writing, I save whatever I have written as my second draft. Many of my stories happen this way; most of the stories in The Weather Stations happened that way; much of the writing in the novel is happening that way. It is not at all a complicated method; however, it’s incredibly time consuming, and it has made recent work on the novel a bit daunting but exciting?
I like writing this way because I never really know what will happen next in a story. Retyping helps me get back into the language and movement and feel of a story, and it helps me discover holes in any sentence that could be filled or widened or altered with even more sentences.
I also used to take really long showers, as many as three or five a day, when I got stuck on a story, but then my wife said the water bill was getting ridiculous, so I stopped doing that.— Ryan Call, author of Weather Stations
Lately, I feel like I’m writing around [my] story, continuing to set up for the “main event”, some 30, 000 words in, because I still don’t entirely know what it is. These struggles signal that it’s time to go back to the beginning and to the basics, to outline my characters’ desires, and the ways in which they will thwart each other to get what they want. I wish I had a better way of anticipating when it’s time to go back to re-work what I’ve written, but it’s all too easy to cling to the immediate satisfaction of generating new material, no matter how sub-par. For now it takes a couple weeks of struggling (plus a conversation with a friend for external validation!) to give myself the permission to stop writing and start over.— Kirstin Chen, current Steinbeck Fellow
I’ve been advised in many different ways by many different writers over the years — some people think it can be destructive, others that it’s where the “real work begins” — but the only thing that’s been of much use to me is the instruction to leave your finished work alone for as long as you can bear not working on it. What you find, after a period of absence, should be both a homecoming and a surprise. And the mixture of fondness and estrangement that results is a productive place to begin revision, however much work is needed.— Shya Scanlon, author of Forecast
Recently, I’ve noticed that the further away I get from an original draft, the less interesting the story becomes. This certainly isn’t true for everyone, and it hasn’t always been true for me, but I’ve noticed that I tend to kill off what — if anything — was really exciting and weird through revision. So now I try to approach my first drafts with a revision system built in to protect the story from my bad instincts. I’ve gone back to writing by hand, for one. Aside from that, when I come upon a word or sentence that needs to be researched or fact-checked, I put an ‘X’ above it. If it happens again in the same paragraph, I put a ‘Y.’ If I use a word that I know isn’t quite the one I want, I put a “th” above it to remind myself to come back to it with a thesaurus. Then, when I’m finished hand-writing the first draft, I type everything up, filling in the X’s and the Y’s. If I come upon a sentence I want to change while I’m typing, I don’t change it. When I’ve got it all typed up, I read it out loud. Nine times out of ten, I’m glad I didn’t change it. To summarize: revision, for me, has been about building the confidence to trust my initial instincts.— Courtney Maum
The shorts are no problem; often they’re just right. Right and done, just as they are. But when they aren’t right — now or anymore — you file them away. Reimagine and rewrite them. It even feels good. It feels productive. No, it’s the longer work that presents the most trouble for us. And let’s be honest. When we talk about the most painful revision, we’re talking about the work that’s hardest to write. I’ve been working on novellas which are written quickly, but revised slowly, painstakingly. I’ve now used that word “pain” twice, so you get me, right?
When drafting, I write daily, and share the fresh passages instantly with my writing group, to make line edits and address issues in scenes. When the first draft of the first novella was ready, I did two pass-throughs on my own, with cuts and new scenes, line edits. Then I found a great first reader, whose feedback helped me with another pass-through, involving a point of view switch and the meticulous line edits that required, plus more new scenes. Curiosity guided the first stages of revision. As I re-read the draft, I’d cut scenes that didn’t appeal to my own sense of adventure with the subject matter; likewise, I added new scenes where my mind wandered deeper into the lives of the characters. Then, one of my first readers pointed out a possible structural flaw. The book is written from the back to back perspectives of a daughter and her father. The daughter is an unreliable narrator and father’s is told from the 3rd person point of view. My reader helped me understand that by distancing from the unreliable adolescent narrator I might be able to more fully engage the reader in her harsh reality, while also showing her vulnerability and denial. My decision to restructure the book resulted in meticulous line edits and a number of new scenes.— Jennifer Pieroni, editor of the sadly deceased Quick Fiction
Revision for me is freeform — haphazard, even. In its first stages I’m not even aware that it is happening. I write on my computer, and I revise as I write, and I write as I revise, so by the time I reach the end of a first draft, various other parts have gone through what I assume to be five or more drafts already — though I’m not aware of when I’m switching between writing and revising, so it could be more or less. I believe I work the story unconsciously until it no longer announces badness to me. Then I begin to consciously revise. When I revise consciously, I print out the story and try to come to it as fresh and otherly as possible, as if I were seeing it for the first time. Sometimes distance helps with this: I put things away for awhile, come back to them months later. When I return, I read with a pen in my hand, read for where it slows, read for soft spots, sink pits. I read at the structural level, yes, but the largest part of revision for me comes in finessing the sentences. I do this slowly, and I read draft after draft aloud, because I like prose that is sonically assertive, prose that impresses itself on the ear and the mind.
After I have taken a draft as far as I can, to a place where it affects me as I want it to affect my readers, I’ll often send it to non-relatives and have them read. Then I revise more. Then I send it out, or might put it away again and start the process over, depending on how clear the story’s effects on me are.— Stefan Milne
I think many people who are editors would probably think that editing someone else’s work is easier than editing your own, although the same approach might apply. When I’m working with someone on a piece, I try to always keep in mind what the author’s intention is in terms of what the heart of the story truly is, and then exam how the working, moving parts of the story help or don’t help that. Some of these things are simple, logical thing — is there a plot hole here? Can something be clarified? If something being overstated? But other things that I believe are equally as important are looking at the language and form. I care very much about how the sound of sentences and words carry across meaning. So in a tense moment, for instance, perhaps the sentences should be tighter, more clipped and terse, and perhaps the words chosen should also have sharper consonants or bring to mind rougher images. The organization of a story is also important to me, although that’s something more nebulous to describe. I think I have an instinct for how the movement of a story should progress, both in a traditional sense and in the way the story is formed to begin with. With the best stories, I am as invested in how they move me as I would with my own, and as an editor, I pay attention and identify when that falters for me, then analyze what area of craft is contributing to that and how it might best be remedied.
For myself, a lot of the same applies, obviously, though of course, it’s much harder to identify for myself all the time, where exactly I am failing in some respect. I think for a story that needs fresh eyes, workshop is great, just to get some idea of a general response. But out of the workshop, I do tend to push off stories for months, and return later, hoping to get a clearer sense of what’s missing and where I’m failing. Often times I don’t even know what a story is about at that point, and so it’s hard to make the purely analytical edits I try to do with another person’s story. So part of the revision process is identifying what makes the story important to me, not just in terms of the overt “theme”, but also to examine the unconscious, instinctive choices I made as a writer. For example, a story I actually have going up on Necessary Fiction in July was a story in which multiple told me the ending did not work, and I spent months trying to force endings on it. It was only when someone pointed out to me that the story wasn’t just about it’s meaning but also about the musicality that I had for whatever reason assigned to the language, that I realized I had to trust that that was also part of what the story was about. I changed the ending to return to the musicality of the language, and found I had the right ending. Of course, I do what I mentioned above to my own stories too — I go in and cut lines liberally because I tend to be an over-writer, I examine the sound and rhythm of language, I’m an organization nazi and need for the story to feel right in terms of structure, I obsess over details and the choice of words. But I think with my own work it does always still feel like a process of discovery, of trying to figure out with each successive revision if I’m getting closer to heart of a story and what that might actually be. I don’t think it necessarily ever reveals itself fully to me, but I hope the finished product is one that is much more focused but maintains just the right amount of mysteriousness for it to remain a nuanced and complex story for audiences.— Karissa Chen, fiction and poetry editor at Hyphen Magazine
Most of what I do as an editor is taking stuff out. This is mostly because with Kindling there’s a pretty big space constraint — the story has to fit on a 4×6 card. But other than that, there are a lot of sentences or lines that don’t really fit, but the writer doesn’t have the heart to remove themselves. Not everybody has to be as stark and full of white space as Ray Carver. But at the same time, it takes a lot of talent (or not, depending on who you talk to) to write as much as, say, David Foster Wallace, and keep it interesting.
Probably the best piece of advice I can think of, is to put the story or the poem away for two weeks or a month after you finish the first draft. Work on something else, and then come back to it. But, at the same time, keep in mind that this process of revising and stowing away for a period cannot continue indefinitely, or nothing will ever get finished. I heard Richard Ford speak a while ago. To paraphrase: at some point, you have to draw the line and say that it’s over and move on.— Brian Moll, editor of Kindling
Here’s a revision tip that works for me: Keep your best line (or image or idea) and trash the rest.
In essence, this strategy is the opposite of “Kill/murder your darlings” (advice often attributed to William Faulkner but traceable to earlier sources, and oft-repeated in workshops). Sometimes literary murder is necessary, but I don’t cotton to the general interpretation of this line, which is that your favorite part of a poem or story often needs to go. I guess the idea is that if you love something you can’t be objective about it. But I often find that I’m trying to make a poem work just so I can save the part I like best, and nothing but that part is really successful. Is a poem with no good parts better than a poem with only one good part that isn’t earned? No! Kill the crap I say and save your darling.
Here’s another tip that’s especially helpful with radical revisions: Start a whole new file. (Or, if you write longhand, turn to a new page.) In other words, don’t just keep making changes to the same version. You need to be able to see your darling in a new context. This will also help you start fresh without feeling like you’ve abandoned your other lines – they’re not deleted, they’re not dead, they’re just sleeping in another file. You can always go back to them. (I’ve actually used the same line or idea or image, if I was really in love with it, in multiple published poems. There’s no law against self-plagiarism!)— Elisa Gabbert, author of The French Exit
In the early drafts of a poem, I imagine myself standing, literally, on top of its lines. My task in the writing process is to crawl through the poem, then exit the other side, until the poem is on top of me. To start crawling through, I try to articulate very simply what the poem is (or wants to be) about. I use this articulation to build the poem’s logic and narrative structures. Without it, the poem is likely to either wilt, or go on tangents, and never reach completion. Concurrently, I experiment with line lengths, line breaks, word choices, and rhythms. Often, I revise the poem in several different fonts and/or font sizes (invaluable advice from my 5th grade English teacher). After I’ve done as much with the poem as possible, I send it to at least one trusted reader. Then I’ll revise again. And again. Hopefully, at some point, I look up and there’s the poem, above and beyond me.— Dara Barnat, author of Headwind Migration
As a poetry editor I have, alas, found that requesting a poet to revise a promising poem usually results in making it worse. So I don’t do this anymore unless I have a specific revision for them to consider. 99% of the time, they are grateful for this kind of help.
When I am revising my own poems, I go back to the unspoken “kernel” of the poem, the meaning behind the words, and let various phrasings float in and out of place around it. (It may help to lie down and close your eyes.) The core situation or feeling is like the DNA, and the phrases like proteins floating around it, hoping to find a match. If you can’t put yourself back inside this core, then the poem will not have integrity. People say you have to ignore your “critical” mind to be creative, but in fact the process depends on the critical mind being able to say “no” again and again until you finally get it right.— Dan Veach, author of My Long Thigh Bone and editor of the Atlanta Review
Here’s what I have to say about revision if you’re still looking for things: As far as revision goes, I don’t necessarily agree with Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” proposition but I align my own writing habits with poets like Michael Burkhard who spend little or no time revising their poems. I simply don’t think it’s necessary. To me, the writing of a poem is an immediate experience and should be done in a single sitting. If I can’t write and revise a poem in less than two hours I typically toss it. Interestingly, I feel the exact opposite of fiction.— Corey Zeller, author of Man vs. Sky
I’m in the midst of revising a memoir largely about this very rare, very weird hormone condition I’ve got (spoiler alert: I totally live), and it’s got a few competing threads that really gummed up the works in the early drafts. I’ve been working with my agent to sort all of it out, and that’s been a godsend, but those feedback sessions — and writing about hormones — can often feel like high school trigonometry: I understand the theorems and concepts as they’re being explained, but by the time I start to work on them on my own, they’ve rendered themselves complete nonsense in my head.
So I take the Memento approach to revision. Every time I get strong feedback, I summarize the most important parts in the header of the Word doc I’m working on. That way I see it right when I open the doc, then again on every page. No matter what part of the book I’m working on, I’ve always got that constant, hovering reminder of exactly what I should be focusing on in the narrative, or working toward, or what I need to remember to address. Book-length revision can be an insanely complicated, forest-for-the-trees thing, and this way I’m able to keep things simple and manageable (my last batch of feedback concerned a vast re-shuffling of chronology). I’ve heard people say they paste notes or edited pages to the wall at their desk, or save a jpg of an outline to be the wallpaper on their computers, but this method’s been working pretty well for me. So far, anyways.— Mike Scalise
If you’ve read all the way down, you might also check out what’s compiled here, on Kyle Minor’s website, including many many interview quotes he’s culled over the last two years:
Update: I also came across some more revision tips, right now, at Happenchance.net.