The Art of Revision

Congratulations, fellow writer, you’ve finished a draft! So, you’re done, right?

Wrong.

No published book, dissertation, thesis, or essay you have ever read was written in one draft. Even if you don’t plan to publish, anything you plan to share with an audience deserves (at least) a second look. In fact, many writers say that the real work of writing comes through revision. So, the first draft is just the beginning. That is both the bad news and the good news.

Revision does take time–reading and re-reading, taking a break in between revisions to think and process–but the finished product can move closer to the idea and the ideal you had in your head that got you writing in the first place!

How do you do it? How do you find an objective view of your own writing? There are many ways to begin revising. Many writers read through their work without marking it first, then read a second time with a pen (or track changes) in hand.

You should edit for consistency in tone and language, logical structure, clarity of style, and finally accuracy in grammar and punctuation.

Author Charles Johnson offers the following advice for fiction writers on lithub.com, but his tips can be applied to any writing.

Charles Johnson on Lithub

“I begin to polish sentences and paragraphs for style. I always need a minimum of three drafts before I have anything worthy of showing to others, and that’s only if I’m lucky. (Don’t get me wrong: my drafts are not separate entities completed from start to finish. They flow into each other. I’m constantly rethinking a story’s beginning as I work on the middle and end.) Sometimes my ratio of throwaway to keep pages is 20:1. From the third draft forward, I work at varying sentence length (long, short) in every paragraph, and also varying sentence forms (simple, compound, complex, loose, periodic). I see each sentence as being a unit of energy. The music and meaning of each sentence and paragraph must carry into the next and contribute to a larger rhythmic design.

“I try to make sure each paragraph can justify its being on the page. That is, each paragraph should have at least one good idea in it. Or do something to advance the story. Or enrich the details of the world in which the story is taking place or the characterizations of its people. I work at being as artistically generous as possible. I work to amplify a strong narrative voice. I want intellectual and imagistic density. And I want to achieve, of course, the feeling of organic story flow. I rewrite and edit until the piece has no waste or unnecessary sentences whatsoever. Nothing that slows down the pace of the story. Any sentence that can come out should come out. (“Kill your babies,” as the saying goes, unless, of course, you absolutely love that sentence.) There should be no remplissage (literary padding) or longueur (long and boring passages). No irrelevant postcard details in background descriptions. I want every detail to be “significant,” i.e., revealing in terms of character, place, or event. I work to get music—rhythm, meter—between sentences and paragraphs, as if the prose composition is actually a musical work, one pleasing to the ear. The way to test this is to read it out loud. If I stumble when reading the piece, I know those sentences that tripped me up (that were hard to say or recite) need to be rewritten. Also, I try to be generous with concrete language, and to write always with specificity. (The Devil is always in the details.)”