OWL: A Few Notes on Revision

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Last night, I led what may have been my last Oslo Writers' League (OWL) meeting for a few months. At the tail end of an unseasonably snowy day, ten of us managed to make it to Cafe Fedora (our generous hosts) to discuss the third OWL anthology. At this point, everyone contributing to the anthology has swapped their pieces for critique. So, to start us off, I ran through a few tips on revision... that dreaded, necessary next step.

Time

Take a couple of days between accepting feedback and attempting to apply what you learned to your manuscript. As noted in an article titled Write First, Edit Later, "Let your writing sit for a while. It may make more sense if you sleep on it. Or, it may make less sense after you have slept on it. At least you'll know which."

Intention

Now that someone else has given your piece a read, it's a good time to ask the big question: Does the story achieve its goals/the goals of the author? This is a question the author alone can answer. Remember that, once the story is out there in published form, you can't stand over the shoulder of every reader interjecting page flips with, "What I meant to say..." or "See, that makes sense because..." Once released, your story is open to each individual's interpretation.

Revision is the author's chance to take feedback from initial draft readers and use it to make certain that the story works on the appropriate levels. It is interesting? Is it memorable? Is it surprising? Is it easy to follow? Is it consistent in pacing and/or voice? Even if you didn't ask your reader these questions beforehand, go back and ask after the fact.

The opening line

Stephen King makes the case for the importance of the opening line: "We've talked so much about the reader, but you can't forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who's actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it's not just the reader's way in, it's the writer's way in also, and you've got to find a doorway that fits us both." 

Now, I'd say that the writer's way in is only important in the first draft. It's the thing that gets your pen onto the paper, which is sometimes half the battle. Finding an opening that is unique, beautiful, gripping, informative, all-of-the-above for the reader is something that can best be done in revision. Use the fresh pair of eyes offered by your critique partner to help you identify the ideal opening. Often, you've already written it, but it may be buried deeper in the piece.

Length

First drafts are often roomy. Writing from a place of pure inspiration and passion and imagination, you followed your whims down every possible trail. Revision in this case will mean a serious pruning session. Find what is necessary to the story. Keep it. Locate what is tedious, tangential, forced. Cut it. Remember not to be swayed by beauty alone... but I'll come back to that in a second.

On the other hand, first drafts are sometimes stunted. You were able to find the structure or skeleton of a tale, but haven't yet found a consistent voice that a reader will want to follow. Or perhaps you've unintentionally left pieces of plot or character underdeveloped. In revision, you're fleshing these things out. Ask your critique partner to identify weak spots, confusion, then fill in the blanks.

Beauty

Beauty isn't synonymous with poetry or flowery prose. Hemingway's writing--spare and stark as it was--is some of the most beautiful in 20th century literature, in my opinion. This is a question of personal aesthetic. Very subjective. But we all know the difference between elegance and inelegance in a line of prose. Here's what you're looking for: Unless a sentence or scene acts as sinew--holding the story together, leading the reader from one important place to the next--it must go, no matter how much you love the way it sounds. 

That said, while purposefulness and effectiveness are more important, ultimately, beauty is worth nurturing in what remains after you revise for those two things. Beware of overworking your words in this quest, though. Beauty is best when it is (or at least feels) organic. As Elmore Leonard said, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Cleanliness

Proofreading is an important part of the editing and revising process. When submitting your writing to any publication, you should make sure it's as clean as possible On top of maintaining a consistent point of view (first person, second person, third person) and tense (past, present, future), scrubbing your piece of any and all spelling and grammatical errors is essential.

Here are a few tips for this part of the process: Don't obsess over grammar, because style can override certain rules, but make sure everything is easily readable. When looking for spelling errors in your own writing, try reading it backwards! This will help you catch things a spell-checker might not. (Think homophones like here/hear, there/their/they're, and wait/weight.) And be sure you have spelled your characters' names and place names the same way throughout. 

A Few Other Basics

Avoid adverbs, especially after "he said" and "she said."

Leave out the boring parts.

Five words you don't need: just, really, quite, perhaps, really

When it comes to this last, listen to Mr. Mark Twain, who said, "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very.' Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Audrey Camp published on March 27, 2015 2:57 PM.

Surprising Spring Snow Stuns Oslo was the previous entry in this blog.

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