Many new writers confuse editing with revision. Editing is one of the later stages and is focused on cleaning and polishing of your prose. During this stage you (try to) catch typos, misspellings, incorrect grammar, and ensure you have clean presentation (check formatting) and have carefully followed the guidelines for your submission. Editing is often completed by someone at the publishing house. But it should also be completed by the writer and is often possible in a single pass.
Revision, on the other hand, comes a bit earlier in the writing process than editing. It is also completed in numerous passes and/or various attempts. During writing workshops when someone asks, “How many times do you revise?” I tell them it depends. I revise as many times as it takes to ensure it’s clear and the best prose I’m capable of writing at this point in my career. This is never what the participants want to hear but it’s a reality of the writing world. If you want to publish, this is what you do.
It helps to think of revision as “rethinking” your story. Now that you have your draft–your story framework and basics–on paper, you can shape it, like clay; refine and rework it as you ask yourself questions about characterization, point of view, use of dialogue and detail. Perhaps you’ll even try a different approach in plotting or viewpoint for a scene or two. Revision is about refining but also developing and deepening the story so the reader has the best possible experience.
Most writers break revision into section or passes. How you approach it is up to you; it depends on your creative approach. Some writers draft and then revise a bit, draft and then revise, but eventually, they reach a point where they are focused on reshaping and rethinking (rather than adding chapters and pages to the manuscript). I’m in the camp of getting a complete draft on paper and then playing around with the writing elements, expanding and deleting scenes, rethinking, shaping, looking at the draft with fresh eyes: re-visioning.
If you’re ready to learn more about “looking again” at your draft and revising, I have a revision class starting Wednesday, October 28 through ACE (Adult and Community Education) in Naples, Fla. Find details on my website workshops page.
My writing students are often baffled when I ask questions about background for their stories. How did this come about? What is your character seeing at this moment? What sounds does she hear? What odors does he smell? They want to know why it matters. It matters because the reader needs details to help connect him or her to the story. This creates reader engagement.
These writing students have vague ideas where their stories take place but the thought of “research” to build the background for their stories seems “wrong” to them. After all, they are the creators of this story—anything is possible, and everything they say “goes.” True, but all the details need to make sense to the reader. It’s also true that fantasy and science fiction authors must make up every detail of their world while stories taking place in the present time need only mention a few details so the reader has some anchor point for painting the scene in his or her mind. Fantasy and science fiction authors create the story setting and background by “world building.” But stories set in the here-and-now also need a little research. After all, if your character is in the woods of North Carolina and comes face-to-face with a poisonous snake, that snake had better exist in the North Carolina woods. If not, the writer’s credibility as a storyteller evaporates.
Whether I’m working on a contemporary story or one of my “other world” stories, I use sensory details to think about the setting and make decisions about the background for my stories. If I’m taking a walk and notice a particular tree, I wonder what type of trees my characters would see in a particular scene. What sounds would Kaelyne hear when she’s in training? What sounds and smells does Kaia hear at the compound, or while exploring outside? Does Kaelyne see squirrels or other small furry rodents that inhabit trees and chitter to each other? What strange species does Kaia see on her alien planet? Are they poisonous? Dangerous? How do made-up creatures (animal and insect) move? What do they eat? What are the native species of plants and animals? Are their invasive species, as we have here in Florida? What problems do they cause? (The answer to this question could lead to a subplot, especially if Kaia or the others in her compound are blamed for bringing those invasive species to the planet.)
I remind myself to look up, too. As a child I was a sky-gazer. I loved looked at the clouds and, during the evenings, at the night sky. So I think about both the day and night sky as I build the background for my stories. Clouds can alert characters—in any type of world—to weather conditions. Stars and moons in the night sky can immediately alert the reader that this is not Earth. But our stars have constellations with connected stories and legends, so what connections and legends do the stars in my other worlds have? How will this help my characters as they work to resolve their story conflicts?
So, when a writer is creating a world for fantasy or science fiction stories, he or she has more details to sort out, but a writer with a story set in the here-and-now still has details to consider and decisions to make. The background he or she builds helps the reader engage with the characters and have a stronger story experience. Taking a moment or two to envision what the setting looks like, sounds like, smells like, and feels like and then weaving those details in as the characters notice them, will help make your story real no matter where or when it takes place.
Earlier this week I finally had a chance to catch up with a dear friend. We went for a walk on the beach and talked about writing. Since she has taken my writing classes in the past (that’s actually how I met her), she reminded me about something I tell my students at all levels: “make your clay and then worry about details later.”
What do I mean by this? A writer’s draft is the medium of our craft which we shape and refine during revision. The real work of writing comes during revision. As writers we need to make our clay, meaning getting the words out of our heads and onto paper where we can then work and rework those words into a finished manuscript. If we were painters, we would have brushes, paints, palette, and paper or canvas to use to create our work. If we were potters, we would begin with a lump of clay and mold, shape, and work in details.
Writers, too, need something to work with–something to shape, trim away excess, add in detail, refine and illuminate. So I encourage all my writers to finish (or nearly finish) a draft before they focus on revising. Why? It’s easier to trim away the excess and add in details, develop a character, refine a plot line, and so on, if you have your basic three-part structure in place. It’s not set in stone. Word processing programs make it (thankfully) easy to move, cut, and add (and return to a previous version if necessary). But, once the words are in black type on white paper or screen, it gives the writer something to see and work with, much like the clay used by potters and sculptors.
Having something concrete to shape takes away the tension of revision for newer writers. Viewing the draft as something that includes debris or flaws to pick out takes the pressure off of creating a “perfect” first draft. The key word is “first,” since many writers create multiple “drafts” before a polished piece is sent to an editor. Incidentally, the editor then refers to that much-revision MS as the “first draft,” since it is his or her first go-round in editing it.