Rethink, Restore, Revision
Blog | writing craft | craft | writing for children and teens
September 8, 2016
I have author friends who love revising. They love the process of carving really good prose out of potentially questionable prose. For me, revision is more of a necessary evil, and one I must constantly, consciously focus on or else my "let's make up a new story instead" nature will take over, and I'll send things out that really aren't ready. I've judged a few contests in my writing life, and I'd say that's the number one reason a good piece doesn't win a contest: it's good, but it's not ready. It could have been great, but the writer stopped at good enough.
Now, I'll be honest. Sometimes "good enough" will get you the contract and get you published. BUT, it'll also tend to get reviews about "uneven pacing" or "rushed endings" or even just reviews with the word "rough" thrown in. Revision is about smooth. It smooths the raw edges where the writer's intent bashes against the writer's speed. Revision fixes continuity errors. It searches for the theme and makes it clearer and cleaner. Revision gets rid of most (though probably not all) typos and grammar errors. Revision makes sure the work is orderly.
In some ways, revision is a bit like cleaning out your junk drawer. At one time, you thought everything in that drawer was important enough to keep and put in there. But when you start cleaning it out, there are almost always a few things that cause you to hold them up and wonder, "Why did I save this junk?" A good story revision is going to show you those spots where the story is holding junk it doesn't need. Junk that doesn't advance the plot. Junk thrown into a poem just to make a rhyme, but that simply doesn't make sense. Stray facts that slipped into your nonfiction that doesn't relate to the focus of the piece. With an honest, bold revision, you'll recognize that stuff for the pointless junk that it is.
But revision isn't just about tossing out the junk. Look at that junk drawer again. How easy is it to find anything in there? It's a mess. Even the important stuff is tangled up with the leftover string you've been saving or tossed in completely different parts of the drawer, making the drawer far less functional than it could be. Revision is also the process of cleaning up order and organization. Revision makes sure the things you need for your plot (or your article) are structured in a way that make sense and that serve the story (or article, or poem). Revision makes the piece more servicable, more ready to meet the needs of the reader. It makes it readable.
Right now, I'm working my way through a mystery novel. And if I introduce something vital in Chapter Ten (such as having the main character solve a clue through her knowledge of wild bird calls) then I need to prep for that thing. I need to go backwards in the piece and revise so that we know the main character is a bird watcher or something similar, something that will make her knowledge of wild bird calls NOT seem bizarre when the story reaches that point. If I don't do that, then many readers will be disgusted when this "convenient" skill pops up out of the blue.
It's not just mystery novels that need that. If your character "just happens" to have some very strange thing in her backpack that saves everyone in your adventure story, then we better have seen her put it in there or have some earlier mention of the fact that she didn't really know how to pack so there are a lot of strange things in that backpack. And all of that sort of back fill in the story to avoid "convenient" plotting can happen in revision.
Another thing that happens in revision is euphony. Yeah, this is the part where I recommend you read stuff out loud. I know, everyone recommends that but we all feel silly doing it so a lot of us don't. A number of years ago, I wrote a little middle grade novel for a publishing company. I loved the story. Lots of kids loved the story. Lots of adult reviews noticed it was pretty rough. Well, my daughter eventually grew old enough to potentially enjoy the story, so I began reading it aloud to her. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch. Years had passed since I wrote it, so I was reading it out loud like a "reader" and not like the "author." And it was rough. I saw so many lines that could have been good but weren't. It embarrassed me. Eventually the publisher reprinted the book and I was able to rewrite the first chapter (where the worst of the bad prose occurred) but I could never wipe away the fact that thousands of books reached the hands of kids that were just plain crappy writing. That's on me. All I needed to have done was read it out loud. It's one thing to make a mistake because you don't know better. It's another to be lazy. I was lazy, and I regret it.
These days, I don't always get to revise as extensively as I'd like. Deadlines come fast and furious, but I've also become better at sorting that junk drawer. I do it a lot. And I know the sort of pointless junk I tend to throw in and the spots where I tend to let the drawer get rough, but the work of revision is always there. None of us writes perfect prose.
So, if you want to make more sales, try to avoid sending out things that are pretty good, or good enough. Revision may not be much fun, but that junk drawer looks terrific when it's done.
Jan Fields is a full time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.