10 Tips for Ruthless Revision

            Generally, in my almost fifteen years of experience, I’ve come to discover there are three types of writers. Drafters spend the most time in the development, brainstorming, and first draft stage of a project. Editors focus on the small details in a text, constantly tweaking this word or that. Revisionists, on the other hand, focus on the big picture and re-organize or rewrite entire books in pursuit of perfection. Eventually, through dedication, writers may become blends of all three, although usually leaning in one direction more than the others. For example, I’m primarily a drafter, but spend more time—over all—in revision.

            My very first novel went through two revisions before I drawered the book. Stained, prior to its newest concept, went through nine. Hymns for Deer Folk, my thesis for my MFA, contains over 60 revisions and drafts for all of the stories within the four overall revisions. This doesn’t include my experiences revising other short stories, poems, or other genres. So, over the years, I’ve developed habits to help me become a more ruthless revisionist. If you’re stuck on a draft perhaps they’ll help you move along in the process. This will mostly be aimed at writing fiction.

  1. Walk away. This is part of the reason why revision takes longer for me, but the ‘walking away’ can be any length of time. The key here it to take a break, rejuvenate, and come back to the project with fresh eyes and the ability to be objective. Staring at the same document repeatedly means you become attached or miss details, but moving onto other things—new projects or focusing on something else—allows you to “kill your darlings” without caring as much. For my last revision, I stepped away for nearly a year and found it immensely helpful.
  2. Watch for filtering language. This is one of the easiest things to cut and usually pops up in early drafts. A filter is any word that creates distance between the reader and the perspective character: feel, look, hear, taste, smell, thought, remember, wonder, etc. Removing them creates more immediacy and helps put your reader closer to your characters (without necessarily needing to use first person). For example: Joe thought Kelly was pretty neat versus Kelly was pretty neat. If we know Joe is our viewpoint then removing the ‘Joe thought’ takes us right into his head. And filters take up so much space!
  3. Likewise, look for your words. As writers and people, we all naturally have words we tend to use (and overuse). These would be our ‘tells’ and can affect character voice, the flow of the writing, and the syntax itself. For example, I love to use the word ‘just.’ Sometimes, it’s justified, but otherwise it’s completely a filler word that sounds like me writing versus actual text. Sometimes the best way to catch this can be to use the find function in Word, pick one that sticks out, and see how often it appears. One of my professors, for example, recommended almost completely negating any use of ‘that’ unless it was absolutely needed, and she was right.
  4. Cut unnecessary actions and descriptions. If you’re like me and you have a bit of a “cinematic” mind when writing, or you come from a screenwriting/playwriting background, then there may be too much play-by-play or scenery. Sometimes it’s important to describe how a person moves, yes, but sometimes a gesture is just a gesture. If you’re trying to save word count then this is a great way to cut. Go from “John walked down the block to his job at a brisk pace” to “John scurried to work.” Is the ‘down the block’ necessary? Depends on previous information or scene context. But you can see how we went from a larger sentence with a lot going on to a four word simple sentence that conveys most of the same information. So, in revision and editing, you can think of ways to restructure sentences to change page space. However, you shouldn’t do this at the sacrifice of character voice or important details.
  5. What is your story About? Usually in development and drafting, you’re not too obsessed with what a story is about in the bigger sense of themes, imagery, and meaning versus plot, characters, and setting—that’s fine. It’s more important to get the ideas down first and then refine them later. Here comes the refinement. Sometimes, during drafting, these ideas may subconsciously appear in the text; now, you can pick and choose which to draw out and which to maybe smooth away. This is where you could maybe imagine if you had to give a report on your story or a two sentence pitch, what would you say? A story is always larger than its small picture and that big picture can often be what sticks with readers.
  6. Cut, develop, or both. Depending on what you’re working with in terms of story, certain elements might need to be left on the cutting room floor and others might need further development, or both. Maybe a character isn’t working or adding anything—can they be cut? Maybe there are too many questions about the world-building; it probably needs development then. I once cut an entire section of Stained and revised it to something almost unrecognizable from earlier drafts. Many markets prefer particular lengths for projects. Sometimes you’ll need to cut to meet those guidelines or build up to them if the first draft is short.
  7. Don’t be afraid to scrap and rewrite. If a draft isn’t working, sometimes you need to come at it brand new. This is obviously scary but if you believe in your ideas enough then maybe it’s the writing itself that’s stuck. This is what happened with drafts 6-9 of Stained; I kept editing and editing the same ideas and moments without much change. Finally, I decided to do a complete overhaul of the project and will (eventually) rewrite it. You can always take the great lines or scenes from earlier drafts to your new one, but continually working off of something old may not always benefit.
  8. Try changing the verb tense or perspective. Okay, this can be a lot of work, especially for a completed novel-length project, but it will definitely shift so much. The verb tense can effect a lot in a story, shifting the immediacy of how it feels or what’s going on. Some of my stories started in the past tense but then became present, and it’s a tense I’ve come to like working with (especially in horror). For perspectives, if the one you’re working with feels too distant or not distant enough, change it. You can move from first person to third and change the how close that feels as well.
  9. Add or cut perspectives. Depending on the scope of your story, sometimes you want to tell it from multiple angles, as it were. There are a lot of ways to do this, from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire sprawl to Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs give and take to Tess Sharpe’s mysterious Far From You. You can play with characters, time, and knowledge in this way, but want to give your readers as much as they need to (or should) know. No one really likes a useless perspective. For example, Stained, in its earlier drafts, was still a dual narrative but one of the characters’ storylines didn’t have an internal focus with their own motivations or drives and was instead a reflection on the other character and plot, and was more boring because of it. Each perspective, then, needs a reason to exist and, for the most part, every perspective character deserves their moment in the spotlight.
  10. Don’t be afraid of criticism. Some of my best revisions have come from the criticism and suggestions I received in workshops. Being open to that kind of feedback is important, because talent can only get you so far. If you get feedback of any kind on your draft, think it over, mull on those suggestions, and then play with them. Some will be obvious no’s, but others might inspire ideas. Over the years, I’ve had suggestions to switch perspectives, cut story elements, cut stories in half (word count), make characters more likeable or less likeable, describe settings more, etc. Usually, I think on it before deciding whether to go try it out; sometimes it works, and sometimes you have another draft.

            Like with most things in writing, revision is a learning experience and recursive. Over time, a writer learns what techniques work best for them and hones those individual tools. They write, rewrite, edit, and revise over and over again. Eventually, something might come of it. As with all things, it’s a process where you become familiar with your bad habits and your good habits and find a way to work toward a result that’s the best of everything. It may take time or not long at all. The first draft will never be absolutely perfect and that’s okay. We become better editors and revisionists because of this.

2 thoughts on “10 Tips for Ruthless Revision