The Addition and Subtraction of Revision

Cathy and I finished putting together a one-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle last night and were surprised to find we actually had one thousand and one pieces. Yep, you got it. We had a piece that was obviously meant for someone else’s puzzle.

Oh, lordy, don’t you know that writing can often be like that. Let’s say you’re moving along with a plot, and you’re just letting things happen and you get to the end and you realize there’s this one plot move that wasn’t necessary because it had nothing to contribute to the closure. Now it’s just like that extra piece of puzzle that doesn’t belong. Maybe it belongs in another piece of writing, but not the one you’ve just finished drafting. You have no choice but to take it out. Thomas Wolf had this to say about his own revision lesson: “What I had to face, the very bitter lesson that everyone who wants to write has got to learn, was that a thing may in itself be the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet have absolutely no place in the manuscript one hopes to publish.”  A large part of the revision process, then, involves the art of knowing what to let go. To know that one has to become more intimate with the thing one is writing, which is to say one has to know what lies at its heart. Early drafts are usually drafts of discovery. At least it’s always been the case for me. I put characters on a page, and I follow their actions. In the process, I learn what the piece is interested in exploring.

Once I know the heart of a piece, I dive back in with the intention of adding and subtracting whatever’s necessary to making that heart stand out as clearly as I can. Subtraction and addition, then, go hand in hand for me. I find that the first revisions I make often center on an opening up of aspects of the piece that are under-developed or not developed at all. It may be possible, in other words, that instead of discarding, I just need to look more closely. This is the part of the process that more clearly defines what I’m interested in when it comes to the piece I’m writing. I keep asking myself what the piece hasn’t yet said. I keep poking at the character relationships and the plot to see what might surprise me.

When I finally feel fairly confident that I know my characters and their journeys through the events of their narratives, I start to think about what I can leave out. Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, refers to Elmore Leonard who said in revision he just left out the boring parts. King says, “This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings). . . .” Elimination can tighten the pace of a piece while also leaving something absent and yet felt on the page. “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning,” Elie Wiesel said, “and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them.” This, of course, reminds me of the famous Hemingway iceberg theory: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” As we look again and again at a piece of our writing, we come to know the piece so well, we know exactly what we can leave out.

This process of subtraction also works on the sentence level. The final part of my revision process involves going sentence by sentence to see what can be tightened or what can be eliminated. Mark Twain said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” A humorous remark with a series intention. Tighten, tighten, tighten.

It may seem to be a daunting task—this addition and subtraction. I’ve found it useful to think of the revision process as having two separate parts. One teaches me what I still need to know about my characters and their stories. Once I know the nuances, I can concentrate on what to leave out. Experience has taught me that sooner or later during the additive part of the process, something will click, and I’ll know the piece more fully than I did when I first began writing it. It’s that click that then gives me permission to start subtracting, cutting anything that doesn’t belong, anything that slackens the pace, anything that bloats the narrative, anything that makes the language vague and loose.

When it comes to revision, knowledge leads to confidence, and confidence gives us permission to add and subtract. With that permission, we can better follow what Antonya Nelson offers as one of her “Ten Writing Rules”: “Learn how to revise. Your original impulse to tell a story is to be trusted; it’s the follow-up that generally lacks diligence and labor. Discovering how to be happy in the revision process is a giant breakthrough.”













  1. Lindsay Gerano on May 3, 2018 at 10:29 am

    I feel bad for the poor soul who put together their 999 pieces and realizes they are missing the one you have 🙂

    • Lee Martin on May 3, 2018 at 11:50 am

      Well, there is that!

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