1) Give your brain the time and space it needs to think clearly. Unless there’s a looming deadline, there’s no reason to rush. We’re often in such a hurry to get to the final draft, that we don’t allow ourselves the time to listen for what the work needs. If you require a quiet space to revise, find a quiet space and stay there for a long time. If your brain needs a clean desk to focus, clean your desk, then focus. If your brain needs to hear the dryer tumbling away in the background to get on a roll, do some laundry. Do what you’ve gotta do to dust off your noggin. If you’ve been sitting at the same desk for hours, it might be helpful to move to a different room, move outside, walk to a café. A new environment can give you a fresh perspective. Think of it as pampering your brain in the best possible way. Give it a nice tranquil place, and give it time to do its thing.
2) Change the format. If you’ve been writing and revising longhand, try working with a computer. Conversely, if you’ve been working with a computer, print out your document to revise longhand. Sometimes a shift this small can help. I have a theory that the extra time it takes me to write and edit longhand forces me to think a bit slower and find a slightly better sentence.
3) Sleep on it. If you hit a wall, set down your project and return to it later after you’ve slept. If you’re not sleepy, eat a meal or go for a walk. We can sometimes be like helicopter parents to our brains. We might just need to step away from the playground and let the child think on its own for a while.
4) Don’t be afraid to cut. Many of us act like hoarders with our little pieces of language. “But what if I find a use for this can of broken zippers?” I get it. I like to keep a document called “scraps with promise” for those pieces of language that I can’t seem to let go of. The more you cut, the more the heart of the piece will become clear.
5) Check for repetition. It can be tedious for a reader to read the same idea over and over again, rehashed with the same words in a slightly different order. Ask yourself if each sentence contains new information that is crucial to the story. Are there specific words you have a habit of using? Do a quick document search to find out how many times you use suspicious words. Favorite words… we’ve all got ’em, and they’re not always helpful.
6) Read. Your brain files away lesson after lesson all on its own. Reading from great books can answer your revision questions, even if you’re unaware of what you’re looking for. We pick up stylistic tools and techniques, we develop our sense of linguistic rhythm—we even become better spellers when we read. And when we return to our writing, we do so with a more complete tool belt, with the ability to fix problems we couldn’t see before.
7) Enlist an outside reader. A second set of eyes views your writing from a different perspective. If you work on something on your own for too long, you start to lose sight of how a fresh reader might approach it. You may have edited out something crucial, the absence of which only a new reader can recognize. You also run the risk of editing the thing so thoroughly that it loses its original inspiration/spark/magic.
8) Don’t get discouraged. The revision process can be scary and intimidating. There have been countless times during the revision process when I’ve decided that I’m not good enough to call myself a writer. As important as it is to enlist a reader as mentioned above, it can be detrimental if we listen to our readers when they tell us we’re doing it wrong. There are so many ways to write a poem or tell a story, yet some people think their way should be the only way. I would pity the readers of the world if we all wrote the same kind of story. What a boring world that would be.
9) Step away and do something enriching. Your body and mind need to recharge. It can help to do something that’s creative but lacks the pressure of writing/revising. Do something just for the joy of it. Do you like to sketch, whistle, make a beautiful meal, pop wheelies on your bicycle? These can all be creative activities that simply give us joy. Slowly we can learn to bring this joy and playfulness back to our writing. Revising then turns into a form of play. Moving a sentence to the end of a paragraph, or rearranging a scene, can be like drawing something in the sand, only for the image to be washed away. And we learn to stop making up imaginary consequences for “getting it wrong.”
10) In the wise words of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, “Treat life like an experiment.” It doesn’t have to be so high stress. Let your playful side take over and let go of the outcome. Revisions help us learn the ins and outs of what works and what doesn’t. So allowing yourself to sit in the uncertainty of this process and learn from experimentation is invaluable to your writing practice.