Revision is a tricky thing because it’s a different thing than writing. It’s a different action, a different skill. It demands a wholly different mindset.
When you are writing a book, you are creating. It’s imaginative, generative, full of heat and impulse. For many writers, it’s enormous fun. You can lose yourself in the process of putting words on the page and watching the pages fill up. The heady thrill of making something out of nothing is always there during the writing process.
But when we turn to editing suddenly that thrill is gone. Now we have something with weight and shape. As Susan Bell, author of The Artful Edit said, “While we write into a void, we edit into a universe.” The difference is that a universe has rules and limitations that the void does not.
Editing is, in many ways, the exact opposite action from writing. It is logical, systematic, analytic. You must step back and assess the work with a ruthless eye. It often doesn’t seem quite as fun, quite as free. The writer Jorge Luis Borges said, “Art is fire plus algebra.” When it comes to creating a book, writing is the fire; editing is the algebra. And the goal, of course, is to make art -- which is to say, something that moves other people.
The mistake that many writers make is they fail to give themselves over to the new and different action. They try to edit in the same way they write – word by word, line by line. In so doing, they focus on things like grammar and word choice, or the logic of a single sentence. Perhaps they zoom outward a tiny bit to look at a chunk of dialogue or a character’s motivation, but that’s as far as they go.
If you are still looking that closely at the work, focusing on the level of the comma and verb-tense agreement and lyrical descriptions of people, places or things, all you are doing is moving deck chairs around on the Titanic.
What you want to do in revision is look for the hole in the side of the hull. You want to see if the ship itself is watertight and seaworthy. You want to step way back so you have a completely different view.
This is what editors and book coaches bring to the table – this ability to see the work in a new way. We bring perspective. You can’t get out of your own head – no human can. But you can learn to think like an editor, to step back from your pages and bring a steely-eyed measure to the pages.
- The very first step in this process is to approach the work as a whole entity, away from the computer. I insist on paper for this step, because you can’t move words around on paper with the flick of a mouse; you can’t shift paragraphs, swap chapters, ax scenes, pound out the bridges you need to get us from one chapter to the next. All you can do is read and take notes. So this constraint is there for a purpose.
- I also insist on working somewhere different from where you write. It can be a study instead of the kitchen table, a coffee shop instead of a library, facing the street out front instead of the street out back. This is to trick your mind into thinking you are doing something different from writing – because you are.
- Next, get quiet and open. This is a critical part of the work of revision. You have to be quiet and open to seeing what is really there rather than what you just hope is there.
- Spend no more than one hour going over the work – skimming it like a bird flying over a field. You know what’s there; you wrote it. This exercise task gives you the opportunity to try to take it in as a whole. As you whip through the chapters, simply ask yourself, “What do I know is not working about this book?” And jot down your thoughts. Odds are good that if you are in a new place, in the presence of your story on paper, in a quiet mind that is open to seeing what is really there, you will know. And knowing is the first step in being able to improve.
I teach this exercise in detail on Day 1 of the Revision Sprint, which is upcoming on December 9th and 10th. I call it The 60-Minute Manuscript Audit. To learn more, click HERE