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On Revision

by Floyd Largent, Editor

To me, the real meat of writing lies in the revision. Sure, it’s crucial to get your story onto the page, because everything else springs from that wellhead. You can’t create your masterpiece without the raw materials to work with. But the editing process is where you cut and polish your rough gems into shiny jewels.

We all love it when a story just flows, almost effortlessly. For me, that often happens when I’ve done enough research and know enough about a topic that I reach “critical mass,” where the writing becomes almost as easy as speaking. In fact, it’s easier for me to write, since I’m not very articulate in person—and it’s hard to edit your speech!

Editing and revision are where the rubber hits the road for a writer. Whether the writing flows or not, or you’re blocked and just writing anything until you suddenly hit your mark, your writing will almost certainly need to be reworded, cut, tightened up, checked for logic, or otherwise revised in order to turn it into a sharp, concise, productive piece. I almost always overwrite by at least 20%, usually more, so I spend as much time trimming the fat as I do writing the first draft. This is often more satisfying than the original writing itself, because it teaches me what not to do later. As a result, it’s become much easier to write non-fiction articles in subjects I’m well-versed in without overwriting.

Then again, I just as often write 1,000+ words when my client wants 750 or less. Then I really have to get on the ball and cut, which can be tough if the writing is information-dense. What facts can I afford to leave on the cutting-room floor? How can I say in five words what I previously said in 10? Can I tighten up the manuscript by using contractions? The latter option is one that I recommend, whatever you write. It makes the text more user-friendly, more like modern speech. Now, if you’re writing heroic or historic fantasy, you might think you need to write it as the people of the time might speak—especially without contractions—but that isn’t necessarily the case. You’re a kind of translator, so translate the speech into a form your readers can more easily grasp.

At the same time, your translation must be unrelentingly concise. If you’ve been given a specified length to write to, you have no choice but to find ways to force your prose into that length without losing important information, characterization, or plot. This isn’t as much of an issue for fiction, since you have freedom to perform; but fiction or not, if you’ve been assigned a specific length to write—especially on spec—stick precisely to that length. Cut and rewrite until you achieve it, even once you hit the point where you feel you can cut no farther without damaging the piece, because the person who assigned it won’t be pleased if you exceed their guidelines. One of the things they’re doing when offering you an on-spec opportunity is testing how well you can follow directions, not just your caliber as a writer. Fail to hit your mark, and you’ll get a resounding rejection. That’s how I learned the lesson, and I suspect most active writers can say the same.

Yes, you can cut even further, as long as you revise so that your article or story makes sense, even if you lose part of the lean meat of your prose. You don’t have a choice; you have to please the gatekeepers, or they won’t let you in. We writers can curse about that all we want, but it’s a harsh fact of life; and like a Dutch Uncle, they’re teaching you a painful lesson you need to learn. Ultimately, learning to revise, revise, revise—even being forced to revise—will make you a better writer.

There may come a day when you’re so good at your craft and so knowledgeable in your subject that you can can roll out an article or chapter without significant revision. This will become the bread-and-butter basis of your writing career. But for anything that requires new research, prepare to overwrite—and welcome the opportunity to fine-tune your work by revising afterward.

Keep Writing!

Floyd Largent has written just about everything a writer can.

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