Revision is Easy When You’re Willing to Change

Posted: October 16, 2013 in Writing Mechanics

There is some amount of instinct to revision. You don’t need to know why something doesn’t sound right, you just need to be able to read it and think, “It’s not right.”

That instinct, though, can be acquired. You can cultivate it. To do so you must read. Read read read. The secret to being a good writer is being a good reader.

But it’s not just about recognizing the words on the page. To be a good reader, you must also recognize while you’re reading what works and what doesn’t.

  • Did you finish the piece? Why did you keep reading?
  • Did you click away? Where did you lose interest and why?
  • Are you having trouble motivating yourself to pick up the book? Why?
  • Can you not put the book down? What makes it so compelling?

The more you read and recognize good writing, the more you’ll see your own writing begin to emulate those devices, styles, and organizational structures that most speak to you.

Last night in our #wschat Twitter chat, a number of our writers said they were their own worst critic and that they were jealous of other writers who did good work. They could see something was well done and felt envious that the other writer had created the thing.

A lit mag I submitted to last week posted in its “what we’re looking for” section that they wanted to be jealous of a writer’s sentences.

The envy is great. It means you recognize the good stuff. It means you read enough to know what’s good and what isn’t.

But we have to do something with that envy. We have to be able to recognize exactly how something was accomplished and then be willing to do it ourselves.

My favorite magazine is Runner’s World because I run (of course) and because it breaks down how people were able to accomplish things – get faster, lose, weight, run further, stay healthy – and then tells you how you can do that, too.

As writers we have access to dozens of books that give the same advice: Here’s how that was done, now go and do it. It’s the “go and do it” where we fall short.

I love a really good sentence.

One where you’re not entirely sure of the meaning and if you read it one way it means one thing, but when read another way it means something else entirely. I love those sentences. I needed to learn how to write one.

At the end of “Daylight,” I wanted to imply that the pair had crossed the line and actually had sex. I wanted the reader to think, “did they?”

I used this paragraph:

In my memory he’s desperate for me and I for him. In my memory we know no one will ever have to know what happens in that room. We know the next day I’m leaving and this is the only moment we’ll ever have. In my memory we can’t let it pass.

This paragraph is set up by several other predictions of what will happen to the characters when the night is over, who’s gone off to school, who dropped out, who ended up as a stripper, and who got married. Repeating the pattern tells us the writer is far beyond that night and so “in my memory” is a way to rub out the accuracy of the moment. The third sentence does not use “in my memory” because that sentence is true.

I thought this device worked and when my critique partner faced me and said, “Well? Did they?” I figured it must have.

Self-editing is about intention. Know what you want to say, know how to say it, and then be able to recognize whether your words are getting the job done. The revising part, moving the words around, adding here and removing there, getting them just right is the fun part of writing.

All writers should revise. No one creates excellence on the first try. No one. But being purposeful in revision and simply re-reading for general clarity are two different things.

You must come at revision willing to change.

That may be why it’s taken me so long to revise A Moment When the World is Silent. I didn’t want to change it. Now, though, I am convinced it could be really, really good. If I’m willing to do the work.

Remember that self-editing is never a substitute for a good strong editor. Your readers have so much to offer in the way of insight. Listen to them and be willing to change to address their questions and concerns. Your work will be better for it.

What was your toughest revision job?

Need some help? Register for my Self Editing Workshop at the SC Christian Writers Showcase on October 26th.

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