Revision Made Simple in 10 Steps

I hate revising. I've got first drafts of essays, stories, and novel starts hanging out on my computer, and I'd rather do anything else besides revise them. In fact, I'd rather write an entire new book than revise one. Think of it in terms of a moving into a new place--hanging pictures on freshly painted walls is so much more exciting than doing a complete spring cleaning on a cluttered house. But we all have to revise, myself included. Because I dread it so much, I've created a ten-step process for revising. Below, I will refer to revising my memoir, but these steps can be used for any genre and for shorter pieces as well. 

1. Let time pass. When I wrote the first draft of my memoir, I didn't look at it for three entire months. And when I picked it up in October, it looked very different than it had in July. I was able to read it as if it were someone else's book, with an outsider's objectiveness. Time truly is your best revising tool.

2. Print out a double-spaced hard copy of your piece--yes, even if its 400 pages. In October, I went to Staples and had my memoir printed out on three-whole-punch paper, and I put the pages of my memoir in a giant three-ring binder. This needs to be a tactile experience. Similar to how you prefer your favorite novels in bound form over e-reader file, you need to be able to work with your pages--flip back, flip forward, and most importantly, mark them up.

3. Take your writing on a date. Ann Hood says that when she revises her novels, she takes her printed out pages on a date to a coffee shop or somewhere where she can't be interrupted. She sits for as long as she can, one on one, and reads her work with pen in hand. I do the same. When revising my memoir, I brought my three-ring binder on a trip from Chicago to Boston. I used the plane ride there and back to read through my MS with pen in hand because I knew that the only person who'd interrupt me was the flight attendant. Try to read as much of it as you can in a long sitting so you see how the chapters flow. 

4. Mark the things you notice as you're reading. If something halts you, it's going to halt a future reader, so don't ignore it. Write notes in the margins about anything you're mulling over. My comments in my memoir margins ranged from "Used 'I' too much in this paragraph" to "Need a chapter about IVF PTSD to tie into the larger theme of anxiety." As you can see, my comments varied from micro to macro.

5. CAM--Cut, Add, Move. All of your comments will fall into the following revision categories: Things you need to CUT, things you need to ADD, and things you need to MOVE. So, every time you encounter something that halts your reading, ask yourself: Cut it? Add to it? Move it?

6. Do a reverse outline. You know how some super organized people outline everything before they write? Don't worry, I'm not asking your to do that. I am asking you to outline what you've already written, a table of contents, if you will. But instead of just writing down the chapter title and page numbers, write a few notes about what happened in each chapter. I single space this document so that I can see my whole book outline on just two pages. This lets you get a zoomed-out perspective. It's like being lost in a forest, when, suddenly, a rescue plane magically hoists you into the sky and you can see the whole forest below you. You can see where you started, where you took a wrong turn, and which path is really the way out. When I do this reverse outline, I'm able to see many things: Which chapters/scenes I need to cut because they cover similar material/ themes. Which chapters/scenes I need to add because the content is clearly missing, and which chapters/scenes need to be moved because they flow better in a different squence. Because I'm a dork, I do this outline on a word doc and use different color highlighters to indicate my actions. Red means cut. Pink means reduce. Blue means move or combine. Green means add.

7. Notice patterns. Once you have figured out your larger issues, zoom in and start looking at your chapters or scenes in the same way. What should you cut, what should you add, what should you move? Now because you can't reverse outline every page of an entire book, instead, look for patterns. Ask: How do I begin my chapters? How do I end them? What expectations have I given my readers and have I fulfilled them? When do my patterns border on redundency? If you're beginning every chapter with a character waking up, then you might need to change some things. Also, by noticing your tendencies, you know what to look out for. It's like football players looking at footage of the other team. You are looking at your writing to notice your tendencies--what makes you amazing, but also to notice your crutches--what makes you weak?

8. Zoom in. Once you look at chapters, then scenes, then paragraphs, start looking at individual sentences. What is your typical sentence structure? I had a student who began all of her sentences with gerunds: "Dancing through the fields, she plucked a flower. Looking at his watch, he groaned." Because it was done excessively, it distracted the reading experience. I have an annoying habit of beginning dramatic sentences with, "And so..."

9. Look at your word choice. What are your crutch words: the words you use over an over? I realized that a man and woman in one of my stories "suqeezed" hands about 17 times. Surely there were other things this couple did besides squeeze hands all day long.

10. After you have read your work, marked it up, outlined it, looked for CAM, and noticed patterns, then give yourself a realistic deadline. I gave myself three months to do a major revision on my manuscript, so I had to set up weekly deadlines for what I should accomplish in order to meet that goal, like: Revise chapters 1-5 by Sunday. 

Finally, to quote Elizabeth Gilbert: "Done is better than good." That's not an excuse to give up and say, "It's fine." No. When you get to the point where you've decorated an entire living room, and you find yourself rearranging the same throw pillows, you're done. Same with your work. When you are at the point of himming and hawing between two great words that would work equally well in a sentence, you're done. 

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About the Author

Nadine Kenney Johnstone is the author of the memoir, Of This Much I'm Sure, which was named Book of the Year by the Chicago Writers Association. Her infertility story has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Today’s Parent, MindBodyGreen, Metro, and Chicago Health Magazine, among others. She teaches at Loyola University and received her MFA from Columbia College in Chicago. Her other work has been featured in various magazines and anthologies, including Chicago Magazine, PANK, and The Magic of Memoir. Nadine is a writing coach who presents at conferences internationally. She lives near Chicago with her family.

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