by Erin Dionne
I FULL WELL ADMIT IT: I’m not a great writer. I’m an okay one.
But I’m a great reviser.
Having the ability to revise, to not be precious about your words so that you can clearly execute your book’s idea, is one of the single best skills you can cultivate as an author. Strong revision skills make your writing go from good to great, and so on.
Being a strong reviser requires three things: objectivity, persistence, and desire to create the best story you can. Let’s take a closer look at each:
This is the single most important piece of the revision puzzle, in my opinion. Cultivating objectivity lets us view our work from the perspective of an outsider. It’s easier to see how well a story is hanging together, how much that character has grown, and how real the book feels if we have a little distance on it. Ideally, objectivity comes from time away from the manuscript. You may only need a few days away from a short story to see it with “fresh eyes,” but a novel may need to sit fallow for several weeks before you feel like you have enough distance from the time and effort you put into its creation. Lots of times, we don’t have the luxury of taking long stretches of days between projects (you’re meeting a contest deadline, or an editor has given you a short turnaround time, or you’re trying to finish this revision before a conference/vacation/dream date). In my next column, we’ll look at how to artificially create the objectivity that typically comes with taking time away.
You’ve worked so hard, and you’ve finished that manuscript, essay, poetry chapbook, etc. Hooray! It takes a lot of persistence to finish a project of that magnitude. You have it in you. But often, writers forget that the persistence it takes to finish a creative endeavor is also needed to go back and do the heavy-lifting work on it when it’s “done.”
I did thirteen full-scale revisions on my first book. I cut the first seventy pages off the beginning of my second book. I’ve cut 70,000 words from my 45,000 word middle grade that releases in 2018 (and the book has never been longer than 45,000 words long!). Sticking with your story, even when you’re struggling with it and think you will never achieve the vision you have for it in your head, is hard. But if you stop working, you’ll never see what it can be. So keep going! Stick with it! In later columns, we’ll address ways to stay persistent.
Desire to Create the Best Story Possible
You know the phrase “kill your darlings”? It really means, “remove all the overwritten stuff that you put in there that you find witty and charming but isn’t really part of your character’s voice or story”. But “kill your darlings” is a much more concise way to say it. Essentially, revision is the act of working your way to the heart of the book—and everything has to be up for grabs to get to that heart. Even if you really, really like that chapter (or—ahem, in my case—that plot thread *wince*). If it’s not working, it has to go.
This requires an openness to ideas and different perspectives, discerning judgment, and a clear understanding of where you want your story to go. Down the road, we’ll discuss the “core” of your story, and how knowing what it is can help you revise.
I’m looking forward to sharing my nerd-love of revision with you in this space. And I’m looking forward to hearing your ideas and tips on this tricky process, too.
Erin Dionne’s books are “Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies,” “The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet,” and “Notes from an Accidental Band Geek.” Her novel “Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking: A 14 Day Mystery” is based on the real-life Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist and was a 2014 Edgar Award finalist. The series continues with “Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting.” Her first picture book, “Captain’s Log: Snowbound,” will be released in 2018. She teaches at Montserrat College of Art and lives outside of Boston with her husband, two children, and a very indignant dog.