Monday, September 24, 2012

What I mean by revision

Jane Lebak's post, "The Art of the Complete Rewrite" (which I discovered via Jon Gibbs) made me think about revision, and what I want to say about it.

Often, when I mention revision to beginning writers, they immediately start talking about punctuation and spelling. But that's not what I mean by revision.

We do have to think about punctuation and spelling, but it's the last step. Punctuation and spelling are like the toppings on a pizza.Worrying only about punctuation and spelling at the revision stage is like moving a few slices of pepperoni around on a pizza whose crust may be raw, or burnt, or falling apart, or missing an essential ingredient. Or, to borrow Jane Lebak's house analogy, it's like trying to fix a damaged house with a new coat of paint.

The first things to check before revising are the structural elements, the ones akin to a house's foundation, plumbing, wiring, and roof. These include the plot arc, the theme, the character development. If the story doesn't build to a satisfying conclusion, if the main character doesn't change or doesn't have the most exciting storyline, if the characters are flat and lifeless, if the story doesn't make sense or if it drags on or wraps up too quickly ... then these are targets for revision.

As Jane Lebak notes, this is about more than fixing commas. This is about deleting entire scenes, moving chapters around, writing new scenes. Bringing in new characters, or getting rid of old ones, or merging two characters who have too-similar reasons for being in the story. Changing the plot: changing what happens or when or in what order. Chopping unnecessary pages from the beginning, or the end, or even the middle. Introducing new subplots. Jane Lebak discusses the most thorough kind of revision: the rewrite that starts from a blank page. Sometimes it does come down to that.

After the story is structurally sound, then it's time to focus on the sentence-level issues: word choice, flow and rhythm, repetition, naturalness of vocabulary, awkward phrasing, etc. This is often called "line editing," and it's probably my favorite step.

And then comes the punctuation-and-spelling step, also known as "copy editing." This is when you discover that you've been using "comprise" when you mean "compose" and "pour" when you mean "pore," and that everything you thought you knew about commas is wrong.

This is why I say I spend 10% of my time drafting new material and 90% of my time revising. I want to make sure that the house of my novel stands, that it doesn't have drafts or leaks or catch fire or collapse. It's always easier to repaint or put a new rug down or slide a piece of furniture in front of that hole in the wall. But when readers walk through the rooms and the house shakes or their feet crash through the floors, they notice. They know something's wrong.

This progression, from big-picture overhaul through small-scale changes, is what I think of when I think of "revision."


  1. Yes. The key is seeing the beautiful house AND its flaws. ^_^

    1. Wish I wrote "move-in condition" drafts, but I don't! :-)

  2. If only revision was as simple as fixing grammatical and spelling errors! I myself don't particularly enjoy the grammar-editing aspects of fixing a story, so I usually save that for last anyway.

    1. I find it soothing after the brain-sucking power of a rewrite. ;-)

  3. Love this post! I mentioned it today in my post. :)