“How Do I Even Know Where to Start?!”
When you’re about to begin revising a piece of writing, it can seem so daunting you may be tempted to bury the darn thing at the bottom of your sweater drawer, then go hide somewhere (say, at the beach) for a few weeks.
I get that. Believe me, I do. I’ve wanted to do that myself. But the seashore is a seven-hour drive from our home in the Tennessee hills and I’ve got to be at work by 9:00 tomorrow morning. Apparently the seashore isn’t a practical hiding place for me. So, revision it is.
A Mammoth Undertaking
The problem is, you’re looking at the process as one great big singular undertaking. When you do that, it’ll feel insurmountable. It’s almost like building a sandcastle one grain of sand at a time.
Shift your thinking and take a slightly different approach. Don’t attack the whole manuscript at once. As my godfather Larry used to say, “The way to go about eating an elephant is one bite at a time.” Over the years, that smile-inducing bit of advice has seen me through countless behemoth tasks—not just writing-related ones, either.
The secret is to focus on one section at a time—one chapter, one scene, one page … heck, even one paragraph at a time, if you need to break it down that far. Your project won’t seem quite so intimidating that way.
Remember that editing client I told you about last week? The one whose manuscript wasn’t quite ready for editing? After he made the necessary revisions to his raw manuscript, he returned it to me. This time it was ready.
Three and a half weeks later, he began reviewing the edits I’d made. Then he phoned me.
When I saw his name pop up on the Caller ID, I panicked. I always panic. Leave it to me to expect the worst every single time. (Unless I’m at a German restaurant; then I expect the schnitzel instead of the wurst.)
“These are perfect!” he exclaimed. “You captured everything perfectly!”
I thanked him, then laughingly chided him for ever having doubted me.
He said he hadn’t realized how much his italicized asides had weakened the message he’d hoped to convey—and he was admittedly amazed at how their removal tightened everything up and smoothed it all out.
Too Close to Focus Properly
Often, we’re so close to our own work we don’t notice its flaws—or recognize how to make it even better. Occasionally, it doesn’t take much. Maybe it’s a matter of swapping a few paragraphs’ positions … or deleting a sentence or two. Or adding a sentence.
Sometimes it takes time and space—even if it means shoving the manuscript into a drawer and ignoring it––for a week, a month, six weeks, even a season! Other times it just takes running it by a disinterested party. (I don’t mean someone who doesn’t care about your writing; that would be an uninterested party. A disinterested party is someone who has no stake in its outcome.)
A year or so ago, I’d finished (or so I thought) an essay I wanted to submit for publication. I had my friend (and former newsroom editor) Elisa review it. She proclaimed it great … except for that one spot after the third paragraph that needed a transition sentence.
I hadn’t even noticed until she mentioned it. Then I couldn’t get past the obvious gaffe! The good news is it only took about eight minutes to noodle the words around in my head and craft the missing sentence—which she said was precisely what the piece needed to tie it neatly together.
Another excellent caution about revising is not to fall in love with something you’ve written. If you do, you risk being unwilling to cut it, should it be the lone thing standing in the way of your manuscript’s possibly being the best literary work ever known to mankind. Okay, so perhaps I’m being a smidgen overdramatic here … but you get the idea, right?
Don’t Miss That Final Step!
And, of course, you should always—always!—engage a professional editor to ensure your finished work is polished and is the best it can be.
I know someone’s thinking, “Well, while I’m hiring an editor, can’t I just engage someone to do the revision, too?”
You could, but then how will you learn to improve and grow as a writer? It’s vital you do your own revision work—because you need to know how to sculpt your words, shape them and present them so they carry your thoughts and express your meaning most effectively. And while someone else might be able do those things for you, that doesn’t help you in the slightest—especially if you’re presenting an essay or a term paper for a class.
And as we’ll see next week, it often takes more than a single revision to effect all the changes you need to make.
I can hear you groaning now. Don’t groan. It’s undignified.
So perhaps now it’s time to pick up that manuscript you’d set aside and begin the revision process.
Yes, it’s time consuming. Yes, it can be frustrating. But think of the final result. You’ll end up with a finished product that will be polished and compelling—and downright unputdownable. And every writer wants that.
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.