Revision Isn’t For Dummies

Yeaton-Fairfax House

Dear Reader:

Okay, so revising isn’t usually a writer’s most favorite part of the job, but it is necessary. When we are in the flushed excitement of creation, we are carried away into that subconscious part of our minds where the stories live and we try to get it all down on paper as fast as we can before we can lose any of the details we are discovering down there in the deep. We are explorers wearing headlamps strapped to our foreheads, digging around in the cluttered shelves of our internal archives, sending messages back to “home base” where the fingers type and the hand grips the pencil and moves it across the paper. We aren’t thinking so much as transcribing. And it is good.

However, after a couple of days or a week (or in this case thirty years), we know it is time to send in the internal editor to do the dirty job of cutting, pruning, pursing of the lips and shaking of the head in disgust, pointing out weak spots, examining the structure for soundness, and causing us pain and suffering in general.

But we should thank our internal editor . . . because without him/her we might be tempted to send a story out into the world before its time where it will flop around and be humiliated and tossed into trash buckets and fade from memory as fast as a snowflake held in the palm of your hand.

So, when it is time to critique your story, or someone else’s, what are you looking for?

I took some of the suggestions from HOW TO WRITE SHORT STORIES by Sharon Sorenson (MacMillan Reference USA, Simon & Schuster MacMillan Company, New York, 1998, 3rd edition.) and went down a list from the chapter “Checking Your Story” (page 73) as follows:

Does the beginning capture the reader’s attention?
Does the beginning allow the reader to entire the character’s world?
Does the beginning start the conflict?
Are the characters believable?
Do the characters’ dialogue and actions fit their personality?
Does the story establish the characters’ motivations?
Does the setting contribute to the tone and premise of the story?
Is the point of view consistent?
Does the conflict make sense?
Do the events arise out of character choices rather than from outside the characters?
Are there vivid sensory details?
Does the resolution grow naturally from the conflict?
Are the conflicts resolved?
Is the ending satisfying?
Have I used conventional grammar and punctuation?
Are the words spelled correctly?

Checking your own work for these elements may not be the most fun thing in the world, but if you give yourself a little bit of time in between first draft and revision, glaring issues will most likely jump out at you. I like to go through first with a quick read and mark places that jar or irritate me. This can be done using “track changes” or “balloons” on the revision tab of Microsoft Office Word if you are using that program. Other programs probably have similar tools. Otherwise, print out your story or look at your notebook, grab a pencil and make notations on your paper.

Next, I go through the story again, analyzing the spots I marked, asking myself, “What isn’t working here?” I make notes. I might try a few different things—getting rid of sentences, adding words, crossing out entire paragraphs. If I make very big changes, the plot may also need to be revised.

Finally, I make another draft, incorporating any changes. Then I begin the process again. When I am satisfied that it is as good as I can get it, I proofread it for grammar and spelling and punctuation. Then, only then, do I ask a trusted “first reader” to take a look at it and give me an opinion.

Unless I don’t wait . . .

Because sometimes I want to make sure the story is even worthy of all that work, so I might share a first draft with a first reader. Or if I’m stuck and want some suggestions.

It’s all about what works for that particular story.

If you would like to read a short story I composed in high school and read more about revision and my own revision notes for the story. . . click on Lesson Five: The 30th Day.

I welcome comments and suggestions. As always, thank you for hanging out with me . . . Outside the Box!

4 responses to “Revision Isn’t For Dummies

  1. I find that if I read it aloud I often find my mistakes right away.

  2. Thanks for writing this post. Writing used to be a serious passion of mine….I say “used to be” because I honestly haven’t written anything very substantial since college (when I was journalism major.) I seemed to have set aside this thing that I love simply because it didn’t align with my career choice. I am going to sit down and try to really write something and see where it takes me. So, again, thank you for reminding me about this little old passion that I once held so dear.

    • You have no idea how happy this makes me, to think that someone has been inspired to write again! I would think that a love of design and style would fit quite well with journalism . . . freelancing articles about your passion, etc. Good luck . . . and I would love if you would drop me a note down the road and let us know how the writing is going.–Shelley:)

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