Yesterday, I fired up the mower and gave our lawn the first cut of the season, thereby ending a winter of having nary a thought about the dormant grass. As I mowed, I took note of a dandelion or two, a bit of clover, and broadleaf—intruders each and every one. I also noted a bare spot or two that will need filling. Thus began my awareness of all that needs my attention.
Revising a piece of writing similarly requires a period of dormancy, a stretch of time when we don’t think about the thing we’ve written, when we let it recede in our conscious mind to a point where we actually forget it. Our forgetfulness will actually put us in a better position to see the piece with new eyes when we finally look at it again, as of course sooner or later we will. We’ll see the flaws that we couldn’t see during the first draft stage. Here are some things we can do to make ourselves more alert to what needs to be done in revision.
- Read aloud. I’ve always found it useful to read a draft aloud as my first step in revision. When I read a draft aloud and I find myself stumbling over a certain passage, I take note. It’s usually a sign that something is off. This can happen on the sentence level as well as on a larger level.
- Track your main character. Follow your main character from scene to scene. Ask yourself whether that character is evolving. Are they, for instance, revealing aspects of their personality that aren’t evident as the narrative begins? Have you found something about the character that surprises you and will surprise your reader in a convincing way? Have you complicated your character by depicting opposing qualities? Memorable characters are those who frustrate any attempt to pigeonhole them. The saint has a tendency toward pettiness. The villain weeps while listening to opera. Charles Baxter puts it this way when he talks about the fact that sometimes street gangs act like families, and sometimes families act like street gangs.
- Start at the end. Read your narrative backwards. Start with the final move. As you go back through the narrative, ask yourself how each scene is contributing to the end. If you see the connection, ask yourself whether you can enhance it in any way. If the connection is lacking, ask yourself what you can do to make it more visible. If you can’t think of a way, ask yourself whether you really need that scene.
- Consider pacing. As you read aloud, think about the pacing of the narrative. Are there important moments that seem to happen too quickly. The degree of significance for any one scene, for instance, should make itself clear in the amount of space it occupies. Likewise, are there places where the narrative lags. Back story, for instance, can sometimes slow down a narrative. Keep your ear open for places where what happened before the narrative opens can be condensed.
- Think about your stage and its props. Narratives happen in specific places. Have you drawn the landscape of your narrative with precision? Have you immersed your readers in a particular world that gives rise to the narrative that’s set there? Also, have your characters put to use the props around them? Are these props doing significant work in the narrative? We build our lives from the places we live and the things we handle.
Revision is often an act of considering what needs to be removed, what needs to be filled, and what needs to be added. A significant period of dormancy can help us better evaluate a piece of writing with such things in mind. Revision should be a creative process, one in which you realize aspects of character and situation previously unknown to you. I hope some of my thoughts in this post will help make your revision process more efficient and exciting.