For what seems a long time, I’ve been revising a novel. I blame my country for this, as I’m devoting a big chunk of my life to community organizing. Right now, it feels like the world needs an American reset more than it needs my novel. This doesn’t mean I’ve lost my sense of urgency about the novel, only that it’s not meeting its readers on the timeline I’d envisioned.
I articulate this to you, my writer-friends, knowing that revision is the place where we writers are most likely to bog down, where we’re most likely to get tangled up and lose momentum and not finish at all. Democracy and saving the world aside, revision is a messy process. There are no magic bullets, no secret formulas.
I’d never claim to know all there is to know about revision, but from the work I’ve done on my own projects and the assistance I’ve given others, I offer these tips:
- Revision is a lot like child-rearing, inefficient and unpredictable. The work will get unruly. You can’t let your ego get in the way. Your book or story or poem isn’t you. You have to let it grow up into itself, into the project it’s meant to be.
- Avoid the temptation to focus on the trees—the small stuff—and neglect the forest. The forest—the big picture that pulls your reader into the work and rewards her at the end—must always be first and foremost.
- Look for All the Light You Cannot See (also the title of one of my favorite novels, by Anthony Doerr)—all the light that you can’t see in the initial draft, the light that needs to be teased forward.
- Be your own good editor. “Good editors are really the third eye,” says author Toni Morrison. “Cool. Dispassionate. They don’t love you or your work.” Where you know you fall short, get editorial assistance.
- Identify your sacred cows, your “darlings” you don’t want to kill. Then put them on the sacrificial altar, allowing them to go if they must for the good of the project.
- Never underestimate the power of rearranging. Move a sentence, a section, a paragraph, and watch a piece open up in new ways.
- Know that revision never happens the same way twice. That’s a good thing. As writers, we’re shapeshifters, always growing and changing.
- Know when to cease and desist. At some point, revision must end. One function of an editor, or a skilled writing partner, is helping you see when it’s time to move from developmental editing to line edits, and then from line edits to submission.
- The “set aside” file is always an option. Through revision, you may find a project doesn’t have the potential you’d thought. There’s no shame in setting it aside and returning to it later, or not at all. Not everything that clamors for the page needs to reach readers.
Deb Vanasse is the author of seventeen books with six different publishers. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon, where she continues to write while doing freelance editing, coaching, and writing instruction.