Again, I thought this might be useful to some folks, so I'm posting it here.
Many beginning writers don’t revise effectively because they don’t know how. Revision is half of writing however (and half the fun! No, really!) The first or rough draft of a piece is you tapping into your subconscious and allowing it to spill out onto the page with guidance, but without interference, from your conscious mind. Writing doesn’t end there, though.
Once your subconscious has had its first say, it’s time to get your conscious mind involved in manipulating the material at hand. Subsequent revisions are an interplay between your conscious understanding of the craft of fiction, and your subconscious and what it wants to say. The trick is not to let the one or the other have too much control, but to balance the two.
Put another way, revision is “re” “vision”, looking at your work again. Here are some ways to look:
- Put the piece away. Yes, don’t look at it for a while. At least two weeks. Don’t think about it. Then, come back with a fresh eye.
- Save Drafts!!!!: Give yourself the freedom to experiment with drafts by saving each draft into a different file. That way, if you experiment with something that is disastrous, you still have the previous draft to go back to.
- Writing towards the life. The first time you read a piece after taking a break, when it's feeling fresh to you again, mark the places where the story seems to go flat, and also mark the hotspots, the places where things seem to take off, or get exciting, or get your juices flowing. The flat places will need to be cut, or rewritten, or cut, or contracted, or cut, or reconceptualized, or cut. Did I mention that you can cut them? Look at what's left (the hotspots.) If the story isn't finished, or needs development still, then start writing again in the middle of a hotspot and let it take you where it will.
- Craft Analyses: Go through your story several times, each time concentrating on a different element of craft. (you don’t need to do all of these, just pick the ones you need the most help on. For example you can:
- do a plot or narrative arc revision by analyzing how the piece establishes conflict, builds tension over a series of events, and then climaxes the tension and resolves the conflict. Or by analyzing how the piece doesn’t do this and why not and what it does instead. You might find that a subplot with a comic character draws reader attention too much away from the central conflict. You delete that subplot, folding the comic character back into the central action. Interestingly enough, that comic character suddenly adds a new and essential scene to the story that resolves other problems you didn’t know how to resolve.
- look at which events you chose to tell about and which you chose to dramatize in a scene and ask yourself if you really chose the most dramatic or important scenes to dramatize. You can also look at the structure of the piece here in terms of scene and summary and ask yourself if you’ve chosen the best order in which to place your incidents and flashbacks. (Most pacing issues will be with narrative arc or with scene structure.)
- do a characterization revision by looking over all the ways in which you develop character in this piece: description, voice in dialogue, action and gesture, thought. You might find that your antagonist’s character is described at the beginning but pretty much ignored throughout the rest of the piece. This results in her being flat and not at all frightening, which in turn detracts from the tension. You add scenes and gestures to muscle up her characterization and rewrite her dialogue to suggest subtly what her motivations might be.
- look at the world and find the things that you left out and fill these in the negative spaces around the scenes, especially sensual elements like smells and sounds, or cultural elements.
- look at narrator, p.o.v. and voice and ask yourself how the choices you’ve made affect the piece. You might want to try writing a new draft changing the narrator or changing the pov. It might work or it might not, but you might consider trying it.
- look at flow of language and rhythm and rewrite passages that are bumpy or uneven. Or maybe rearrange paragraphs so that the flow of ideas or events becomes more jagged and staccato.
- look at pacing and expand sections that are too short or contract sections that are too long; speed up or slow down sections. (Note: only expand short sections if you have more to say there. NEVER add padding. Usually pacing issues are issues of you not having developed the other craft aspects sufficiently—especially structure. So once you've done that, you won't have a pacing problem anymore.)
- Off-page: Figure out what you don’t know about your characters, situation, etc. (Why does Jenny distrust men? What was her relationship with her father? If Chris’ grandfather was a miner, did he die of silicosis? Does Chris remember this?) Go “off the page” of the actual story text and write (crappy) backstory, or (crappy) character sketches or (crappy) prologues or epilogues to the actual story or (crappy) scenes that happen “offstage” in your story. Give yourself permission to write crappily and to never look at what you’re writing again. Writing off-page is purely for content, purely to give you a way back in to your story, and to give you more insight into your characters and situation. Once you’ve done all the off-page stuff, go back into your story and rewrite it.
- Experiment: Go nuts. Rewrite the whole thing from the point of view of a Martian or a worm on the family compost heap or a fly on the wall. Try adding the word “red” to every sentence. Rewrite it in second person, past perfect, passive voice, questions only, all run-on sentences, with no adjectives, without the verb “to be”, translated into pig Latin. Imagine that every paragraph is a poem and rewrite accordingly, with line breaks. Knock yourself out, but save your previous draft.
- Elevator Cut: Sit down and try to write an “elevator speech” description of your story (this is what you are able to tell a stranger in an elevator before s/he gets off. This will be what you can say in about half a minute.) Then go through your story and cut out everything that doesn’t directly feed into your elevator summary. If you find later that you needed it after all, you can put it back in. Cut words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, passages. Cut, cut, cut! Then go back in and sew up the hole your cut left. Make sure that each sentence, each paragraph, transitions smoothly or well into the next.
- Complete rewrite: This should be your last draft. Print out the current draft of your story. Sitting with the print out in your lap, completely rewrite the story from beginning to end. Do not permit yourself to cut and paste from the last version. If you want to use a passage, retype it. Try to do this all in one sitting. Don’t allow the draft in your lap to dictate the story to you. By this time, the story should be pretty clear in your head (not on paper.) Only refer to it when you don’t know where you’re going next. This is to smooth out the prose of a later draft that has been through several revisions and might be looking a little like Frankenstein. This also gives your subconscious another crack at inserting details and images. Do this for a later draft.
- Editing: Go obsessively through your MS looking for clichés, words, phrases, and lines that aren’t quite. Correct them. Rinse, repeat. Don’t be fooled, though, this is not revision; this is editing. Don’t do this first, do it last. LAST!