Now that my poetry challenge is over, I have a lot of revision to do. It’s time to sort through everything I wrote and see what’s going to turn into something worth submitting for publication. I also have more revision to do for that short story I mentioned in a previous post. Since I’ve got revision on my mind, here are my top 5 tips for revising your work.
- Give it some time.
One of the best things you can do after you’ve spent a long time writing something is set it aside for a little while to get some artistic distance. You know how painters often step back from their paintings to get the full effect? The writing equivalent of that is waiting to revise. Disclaimer though: this is not an excuse to just stop writing in general during that time. Also, there isn’t a specific amount of time to wait that I can recommend. Everybody’s different, so the ideal amount of time to wait between finishing a draft and revising will vary from person to person, even from project to project. However, if you’ve written something and you’re serious about making it the best that it can be, try your best to not revise it the day you finished writing it. Or the day after that. At that point, the pride you have in the accomplishment of finishing a draft can blind you to major problems with your content. It’s happened to me multiple times, especially when working on assignments with tight deadlines for school. In cases like that, it really pays to not procrastinate so you can finish your draft early and revise later.
- Be critical of your work.
This part isn’t very fun, but in order to improve the piece, you have to identify what’s not working yet so that you know what to do next. Make a list of the things that aren’t working. If it’s fiction, that may include characters that fall flat, scenes that feel forced, and any dialogue that’s stiff and unrealistic. Is there anything the reader doesn’t know but should? Are all the characters, and settings clearly described at reasonable points in the piece? Are there scenes that feel incomplete, or relationships or character arcs that need to be more developed? If it’s poetry, find the cliches. You probably have at least one. Find anything that’s redundant or wordy. Did you add something stiff just to follow a form? Did you write something that doesn’t make sense or that’s cryptic for no reason? Find the lines that you’re nervous aren’t getting your point across, and rewrite them.
- Figure out what’s good before you make any changes.
I know I just told you to be really critical, but the other side of the coin is important too. Identify the places where your piece is particularly strong. Maybe it’s that one line about the flowers in your neighbor’s yard, or that scene in the middle with the car accident. You might have a character who’s just driving the heck out of the story, or a premise that’s absolutely fantastic. It could be one thing or many things. Whatever it is, write it down too and keep it when you make your revisions.
- Read your piece out loud.
People tend to read things very quickly when they do it with just their eyes, so it’s easy to miss errors that way. It’s even easier to miss errors when it’s something you’ve written because you know what you meant in any given sentence. If you’re missing a word in a sentence you wrote, your brain often supplies it as if it were there, and you go right on reading, never realizing that your sentence is missing something important. I’ve literally caught missing verbs with this tip so definitely do this if you can. Even slowing yourself down enough to mouth the words as you go can be helpful. Reading your work out loud is especially important for fixing errors on the sentence level and improving the flow if your piece. If your language is stiff, you’ll hear it as you read. If your word choice is awkward, you’ll definitely notice. This is also true when it comes to poetry. You really want the rhythm to feel natural, even if you’re following a form, and hearing what it sounds like is a surefire way to know whether or not something is flowing well. If you’re stumbling over a line, it needs to be revised.
- Get a second opinion.
Find a friend or friends you trust to give their honest opinion and really elaborate on it, and share your work with them and only them. You need someone who’s not just going to tell you “it was good” or “I didn’t like it” but give you details about why. Other writers are some of the best people to do this because they understand what comments would help them, so they have a general sense of what you need to know. Avid readers who don’t write can often be very helpful too because they can at least give you a sense of how they felt about the piece as eager readers. If you don’t know anyone right now, look for writing organizations in your area, or try to connect to writers online. You’ll want to get to know someone, but finding a lifelong writing buddy will benefit both you and your buddy substantially in the long run. Even if it doesn’t end up helping with the piece you’re working on now, it’s worth looking into. Towards the end of the revision process, especially for a longer piece, you may choose to hire someone to read and edit your work. Do not just hand that person a first draft. You need to work through your piece to the best of your ability first, but once you do, having another pair of eyes is extremely valuable. Communicate what sort of help you’re looking for and make sure you’re clear on how you will be charged for this service. Some editors charge by page (250 words typically equals 1 page) while others charge by the hour.
Do you have any revision tips that really work for you? Cool stories about something unexpected that happened with your piece when you revised? Feel free to share them in the comments!