Getting into Revising: 3 Methods that Begin
with the Letter ‘C’
By A.Y. Berthiaume
I am more reviser than I am a writer, if there were a way to break down “writer” into these two camps. Like how some “plot” (brainstorm and outline their work) and others “pants” (make it up as they go), I would rather dig in with the content after it’s down on the page than stare at the blank page having to produce the very first draft. Give me the clay and tell me to mold, but please don’t make me make the clay first.
Don’t misunderstand me and wonder why I didn’t just go into editing if I prefer working with words already written. I love the creative process. I love the feeling of finally putting a word to the page. It's likened to the way running feelings after I have gotten started or after I’ve finished, sweating and breathing heavily but feeling accomplished, but damn does it take effort and convincing to actually get up and get the sneakers on. It’s the same thing. I love the reward and control of writing my own words - or taking each step - but the revising process feels easier than drafting and more fun.
There are words there to work with. There are scenes to shape, cut, expand. Characters are on the page to mold into better, more believable beings with soft and sharp edges. You can scan or search the text to find too-often repeated words or phrases or to see where you ran on way too long with that digression or tangent. For me, revising is a treasure hunt and each item I identify where I can dig, sharpen, uncover, is a piece of gold. The final piece is the entire treasure chest overflowing with riches.
I have come across some who prefer revising over drafting as I do, but I can’t say there have been many. Most I come across shudder at the idea of revising. Perhaps it’s fear of facing error since you know it won’t be perfect. Or maybe it’s the criticism - we are our worst critics more often than not. Maybe it’s how daunting it feels to have to now revise an entire document. Before when the page was blank, there were endless possibilities and excitement of how the story may unfold. Maybe for those who prefer drafting it was like going on an adventure. The adventure is over and there's let down. Or the possibilities cease and the real work now begins. Like you’ve architected an entire city and the planning, drawing, envisioning and building was the high but now you have to recognize where your foundation or infrastructure is lacking and so it's time to repair the faults or fill in the cracks and that requires a whole other interaction with the city you’ve just built.
The glory, however, is you’ve built something massive and original. You’ve erected something merely by having the thoughts and wherewithal to document it. You are an architect. It’s not enough for the buildings to have been envisioned, drawn or built. They now need to be withstanding against all elements. For the writer, these include the long chain of editors that may review the piece; the agent you query; the publisher you land; the readers that finally get to consume what you’ve created. Careful attention must be paid then to the revising process. It is the sustainability plan, the shield against the elements.
So how does one get into the revising spirit? I offer that it’s about reframing the idea of revising and about choosing methods that work for you, not just sticking with those you were taught in school when you first learned to write - assuming, of course, you were ever taught how to revise your work to begin with. We’ve already talked about mindset really, so let's talk methods. Here are my top three.
Cut it Up
Print your whole piece, then cut it into sections where scenes started and end and lay them out across the table or floor. This method is best when a complete draft of the work has been completed. Mostly you’re looking for the flow or organization of the story. With scenes now cut, you can move these around and see what they look like placed elsewhere.
Other things you can look for is scene length; you may notice that your scenes are extremely long or extremely short. From this view, you may also be able to see words or phrases that have been overused or repeat. These things have a way of jumping out at you from this view than when you were looking at the screen only seeing one page at a time.
After I have a draft done and I’m going back through reading it for what to do with the next draft, I use the margins of the work (either on hard copy or online), to comment on anything that stands out to me without automatically digging in and changing anything yet. It’s like leaving myself a trail of breadcrumbs. When I get done reading the draft, I can now go and review all the comments I left myself. I look for common threads or repeated questions. Usually, at this stage, I’m looking for the ‘bigger picture’ items: structure, theme, message. I address these things first. The smaller things I may have originally commented on (word choice, repeat word usage, etc.) will likely change as I work on the next draft addressing the larger items. So rather than get caught in those details when the bigger job hasn’t been done yet, I leave those things for later.
This is a method I usually use when I’m getting down to the line-level. You can do this on a hard copy using a variety of highlighters, pens, or colored pencils or on the computer by using the highlighter or font tools. Choose a color to represent the following: repetitive words; repetitive phrases; cliches needing to be reworked; word choice needing improvement; passive voice. You can adjust this list according to what you want to train your eye to search for or what you know is a habit of yours that you want to make sure you catch (overuse of the word ‘I’ to start the sentence, for example). Pick the one thing you want to comb a section of the piece for and go through it just looking for that one thing. Color code accordingly. Move on to the next color. Now your piece is sprinkled with color and you can choose where you want to dig in first.
Remember, revising is a way of ensuring your building withstands the elements. It’s making your tower invincible. You’re still the architect. You’re still in the creating stage -the part perhaps you love most. You’re just doing the detail work now that the initial structure is standing. Those details are important. They hold it up and make it long lasting. The harder work truly is over. You’ve conquered the blank page. You’ve conquered getting all the words down first. Revising is the party after your homework is done.
So, are you ready to revise?
A. Y. Berthiaume is a native Vermonter, aspiring writer, practicing feminist, recovering middle child, hobby junkie, wannabe superhero, and a mom who’s pretty sure she’s just “winging it” most of the time, but hoping she makes it look good. Though she loves the ‘f’ word for its versatility, you won’t find it in any of her LVW posts (because those are the rules). You can find some of her other writing on the Burlington VT Mom’s Blog (you won’t find the ‘f’ word there either). Berthiaume holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the Northeast Ohio Masters of Fine Arts Program. Writing for League Lines Live provides the chance to offer other members of the writing tribe honest (and hopefully humorous) accounts of the trials and tribulations of aspiring to be a writer even when everyone else already thinks you’ve made it. Having only recently discovered her writing voice and made the decision to write under her own name, Berthiaume offers the following advice to her fellow word-wielding friends: Be brave. Be You. It’s time. Visit her at www.ayberthiaume.com.
Headshot credit @luannbaileyphotography
City photo by Chandra Maharzan, workspace by Joanna Kosinska, and Colored Pencils by Salvatore Ventura all on Unsplash.com