Revisions and Re-writes

I had an interesting chat this morning with a friend regarding the revision process. Everyone’s process is different, but I find a few things helpful.

Given that I’ve been writing for years, it may be hard to believe (or easy to believe, if you’ve read my older stuff) but I dislike revising and re-writing. I attribute this mainly to my desire to never read my own writing. It’s awful, painful, and like looking in a mirror when you know someone just dragged a Sharpie across your face — a mess of embarrassment.

Regardless, over time I’ve learned to look at my own work, maybe not as objectively as I’d like, but definitely from a different angle. Showing it to others also takes a lot of effort, almost as much as getting out of bed on your day off. But here’s a list of crap I’ve come to realize about the writing process.

  1. GET SOME DISTANCE.

    Seriously, take a step away from your work and let it breathe. It exists, the page is no longer blank, so let it exist on its own for even a little bit. If you’re a blogger or a reviewer and you need to get it out on the internet right away because the world’s population will cease to exist if they don’t read your list on how to best blow your nose, then at least give the piece ten minutes on its own to rest. Go look at another website, watch a show, or do some dishes. Don’t stare at it. Let your mind wander and think about other things, while the thing you just wrote swims below the surface. Then, read it again, and you’ll notice that wrong use of “there” and “their”, or you’ll see a sentence that just doesn’t quite fit your theme.

  2. LET IT BREATHE.

    Can’t stress this enough. This is redundant (see #1) but if you have a longer piece, like a script or a story, then step back and put it into a drawer for a week, or a month, and then come back to it. I’ve done this with some short stories, and once I wrote one and didn’t look at it for a year. I needed that perspective of time, having gotten too wrapped up in thinking draft one was the perfect draft, but being too afraid to try and publish it. This hesitation exists for a reason. I don’t think all writers are frightened rabbits with fragile egos. We hesitate because the writing isn’t complete. Allowing the piece to exist in the universe on its own for a little while gives it a chance to become something OUTSIDE of you.

  3. LEARN WHEN TO STOP.

    Seriously, don’t get lost in revision oblivion. It’s easy to nitpick, to want to suddenly change the name of a character or add a big plant at the start and then shoehorn in a payoff at the end, just because you read something about structure that you didn’t read before. You’re always going to learn new things about writing, but you don’t have to force it all into the piece you’re currently writing. Finish your revisions, and then read it again. Repeat, and when you reach a point that you can finish reading and feel a sense of calm finality, that’s when you’re done.

  4. WHAT DO I REVISE?!

    It’s up to you what changes you want to make, or what re-writes to apply. If your characters don’t sound authentic, then change them. If you find a section boring, try to spice it up. If you can’t stand to re-read the whole thing, then maybe scrap the whole thing and find a new focus. I started a script a few weeks ago, got about thirty pages in, and realized that I was bored out of my mind. That idea started with the kernel of an idea, and guess what? That idea did not hold water in a longer format. So I wrote a tiny short story about it, and that’s it. That’s completed.

  5. SHOW SOMEBODY!

    Short piece, long piece, red piece, blue piece. Show your piece. Seriously, show your work to someone you know, and trust. And try to seek variety. If you have an action script, get someone to read it who knows action, but also someone who enjoys a good yarn, and maybe a person who loves indie dramas. If you have a political essay, get a TEA Party member and someone whose felt the Bern, see what kind of hits your piece will take. The point is, get a second pair of eyes on the thing. Then, when they both write back to tell you they love the explosions but hate the villain, or that the economy is perfect vs. the Republic will fall, find which note fits best. This morning I was talking with a friend of mine about how to sift through the notes you get, and decide which ones to address. Go piece by piece. Is the note big or small? How many times is that note referred to in the overall context of your piece? Are there specifics to argue and back up that note? Or is the person just saying it in an off-hand way? Answers to these questions will help guide you to which notes need to be addressed.

  6.  HOW DO I MAKE THE CHANGES?You’ve shown your piece to three people, and two of the three say your character isn’t very exciting. So what do you do? Anything you want! What I do, if that’s the note, is go through every scene that features that character. I see what she says, how she acts and reacts, and how she is at the start of the film and how she is at the end. If there’s not a lot of change, something is wrong. If she’s not putting up a fight for something specific, whether overall or within scenes, then something is wrong. I start to address her dialogue, then her actions, and what she wants. Sometimes these changes have large ripples and repercussions, but those are manageable if I’m staying true to these new directions.

  7. IT TAKES TIME.

    Looking at each individual scene takes time. Make a list of things you want to address, and look at them one at a time. Make notes on a Post-It if you think changes A & B for Character 1 will effect Character 2’s X action at the end. Then, when you get go Character 2’s changes, refer to that note. But focus is key, and time is important. Don’t be afraid if your re-writes are taking longer than your first draft. Get it right. Not perfect to the point of nit-picky and suddenly you turn around after 12 years to say, “I’m ready.” Get it right enough that you are happy with it and not hesitating to hit the SEND button in your email to send it to the next person.

I don’t know if this is at all helpful or accurate or just a writer trying to sound important. Probably the latter. But I’ve felt really, really inspired lately about writing and creating, and revisions have somehow become more enjoyable than ever. Enjoy the process. Believe in the process.

Get it right for YOU. You are your first audience.

What do YOU want to read?

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