I’ll be direct, the difference between a writer and someone who merely writes is revision. Learning revision more valuable than learning any other skill, should you want to be a writer. As we’ve undoubtedly seen, a lot of bad books have arisen from a lack of revision. Fortunately, there isn’t terribly much to revision, besides a lot of sweat and some painful introspection. The concept of revision is sometimes misunderstood, however, and this merits clearing up.
What is revision?
Revision is one of those words that is entirely self explanatory. It is RE-Vision. ‘Re’ meaning do it again. It had better be better, too. A revision should not be confused with a mere edit. An edit is pedantic, detail orientated. An edit looks at all the tiny parts of a sentence, an edit is a dissection. On the other hand, a revision is a sweeping revolution, a haphazard macro-evolution.
In an edit you fiddle with the little details of a sentence, adjusting it for grammatical accuracy and stylistic beauty. In a revision you look at your piece as a whole and ask yourself hard questions concerning the purpose of organization, setting, overall style, mood, pacing, tone, etc. These are the qualities you discern after reading the entire piece, not the qualities you identify from a single sentence. It’s in the revision process that you discover your story is progressing too slowly, or that your tone comes off as too angry, or that you really dislike one of your characters. In each step of the revision process you should be RE-visioning. I did a lot of revision with my story The Climb but I probably still didn’t do enough. For illustrative purposes I’ll walk through that process.
Initial Concept: Nora and Adam live in a future where the world is entirely covered in cloudcast. During his astronomy class at The Science and Mathematics Academy for the Advancement of Practical Applications Adam wonders what stars, the sun, and the moon look like. His teacher won’t answer—she’s never seen them herself. Everyone is in denial, telling themselves the absence of these celestial objects they’ve never seen is worth whatever caused the cloudcast. Despite his friend Nora’s concerns, Adam is determined to see the moon for himself—no one else is remotely curious. Adam climbs an enormous telecommunication mast and breaks cloud cover, seeing the moon for the first time ever. On the tower Adam dies of hypothermia, during his dying thoughts he reflects that he’s always had the moon nearby after all—Nora. His body is never found, as he became frozen to the tower.
Revisioning: I’m on a page limit for this piece, so I can’t spend too much time developing the setting. In particular this whole dystopian future requires too much explanation. I really love this particular concept, but it’s not right for what I’m currently doing, so it’s being shelved. However, the image of someone climbing up a metal tower is very evocative to me, so I’m keeping that. Look for more having to do with the relationship between character and setting soon.A new setting is needed, but the climb can be kept. With the new setting comes a necessary character change.
New Concept: Nora and Neal live in the middle of nowhere. Nora wants to climb the local cellphone tower, but Neal doesn’t like the idea.
Revisioining: This is a very rough skeleton. Nora and Neal need a more fleshed out relationship, and motivations.
Concept: Nora and Neal have been dating for ages, childhood friends for even longer. Little ever happens in the middle of nowhere, and Nora is frustrated and bored. There are hints at underlying relationship difficulties as the issue of climbing the tower gets brought up, although it is clear the two are very affectionate. Neal is afraid of losing Nora—in more ways than one. Eventually Nora wins, and climbs the tower. This is an awakening call for her, and she leaves Neal.
Revisioning: Thanks to input from people here I know the pacing was wrong, the ending was rushed and Nora’s decision came too quickly. Even if it had been brewing in the back of her mind for a while, it was too quick. As people Nora and Neal needed to be fleshed out more, in terms of interests and other details.
The final concept you can see for yourself in the Critique section. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out, in large part because I went through the revision process. What isn’t shown is a whole ton of small revisions, because showing those would be tedious. Unfortunately, the revision process is tedious. Everytime you do a revision you should begin typing your story from the very beginning. Remember, this isn’t an edit. This is a process of redoing something with a new vision.
Retyping the entire thing might seem like a pain, but it has a number of benefits. By not referring to your old manuscript you rid yourself of its undue influence on future drafts. Let me tell you, first drafts of anything are certain to be bad. Why base all of your future work on that kind of base? To an extent, you’ll get bored retyping the story, and this will force you to do things to make it more interesting. As a result, you’ll come up with new metaphors and imagery, develop new dialogue, and even write in new scenes entirely. Without your old manuscript to refer to you might occasionally forget something, and be unable to reproduce it in your new draft. This is great. If you, the author, can’t remember something it means it probably wasn’t that memorable. The reader is even more likely to forget it. That’s not the kind of story you want to write. You want your writing to have a haunting quality, or at least a memorable quality to it. So anything you forget is a pleasing—you can replace it with something better.
Of course, this advice applies mainly to short story. For a full novel it might not be practical to rewrite it constantly (actually, this is exactly what many great writers have done). I would recommend rewriting entire chapters. In a longer story you’ll probably have to delete and rewrite entire chapters as you gain a new vision for your story.
Where editing belongs
I like to call the above process the Revision Cycle. It’s only after you finish the revision cycle that you should edit. Editing is a pretty time consuming art, and it’s pointless editing something you will discard later. By the time you finish an editing session on an old revision you’ll probably notice it could use a general revision. So you might as well wait. Of course, if you are presenting your writing to people for critique you should do a quick cleaning up edit. It gives people a better impression of your writing.
Definitely revise. It’s a process of gradual improvement, and if you compare your first draft to your final draft you’ll definitely spot the improvement. Writing it definitely about practice more than anything, so you should try to write lots of stories, but you can get lots of practice in on a single piece if you revise it thoroughly.