“I’m tired of all these tools leaning up against the wall,” Cathy says, and I know there’s no use to argue. We’re about to Marie Kondo the heck out of our garage. It’s a pretty Sunday at the start of May, and we are going to or-gan-ize. The hoe, the shovel, the rake, the this, and the that are soon going to hang by their handles from the wall. Furthermore, I know we won’t stop there. After we put up the organizer racks and hang the tools, we’ll move on to sorting, discarding, cleaning, and arranging. Like a writer facing the task of revision, I grimace, but I also know the work is necessary, and what can I do but begin?
Here, then, are some questions for those of you who may be revising something.
- Does everything have a place? Read the end of your piece. Remind yourself of its landing place. Then ask yourself if everything has played a role in making that end possible? If something doesn’t contribute in some way to the end, consider letting it go.
- Is there something missing? Ask yourself if there’s anything you might add to enhance the end. What have you left out? It might be a hole in the plot, or it might be an aspect of character, or more work with the setting, or better use of a detail. Reread your work and ask yourself what you can add that will be in service of the end.
- What needs to be cleaned? In the rush to get a first draft on the page, we often skim over or bypass areas that need attention. Revision is your chance to look more closely at these oversights. Have you made the world of your piece vivid and convincing? Have you used a combination of sensory details to give the piece authenticity and authority? Have you seen the aspects of your characters that they often keep hidden? Maybe they’re not even aware of them. What is there in these characters that surprises you? How does the pressure of the plot bring those aspects to the surface?
- Does your structure need attention? Is there integrity in the shape of your piece? Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? What about the pace? Are there places where you’ve gone too quickly or slowly? Do the large moments in the plot—the events, the changes in characters—taken up the appropriate amount of space? Big things need big spaces.
- Are you ready to polish? Once you’ve addressed some of the larger issues, you’re ready to do a close read, paying attention to things on the sentence level. Read your work out loud. You’ll hear awkward sentences, repetition of words or phrases, or hiccups in plot or character development.
Bernard Malamud, who called revision “one of the exquisite pleasures of writing,” also said, “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times — once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.” Like Malamud, we should embrace the joy of revision for the creative activity it can be if we enter it with an open mind. I can’t say that organizing and cleaning our garage was an “exquisite pleasure,” but I can attest to the fact that our results were pleasing to us. We stood in our clean and tidy garage. We saw the results of our efforts and called our work good. May you all have a similar experience with your revising.