Revision 101

As I mentioned last week, I’m in the midst of a self-directed revision workshop, working on two manuscripts at once. That might not be the best approach for some writers, but because I want to experiment with strategies I haven’t used before, I like repeating them in different contexts, feeling out what works and what doesn’t. I tackle a chapter a day in each manuscript. Warning: you may become as weary as I of revision before it’s all through.

I taught writing for twenty years, so I’ve walked plenty of emerging writers through the revision process. But almost all of it was in nonfiction. Stories offer their own set of challenges. Every writer and task is different, but in general, much of the process of discovery in nonfiction can be tackled in the prewriting stages. With fiction, I mostly just have to start writing, discovering voice and character and even themes and plot as the story unfolds. I stop here and there, tapping prewriting tricks like mapping to sort through the rough patches. Sometimes I get to the end before I start to revise. Sometimes I screech to a halt in the middle.

The manuscripts I’m revising in my self-imposed workshop are both finished. For all the revisions I’ve got under my belt, I’m still learning new ways of seeing my work. For instance, I’ve always made sure my chapter endings packed a punch. But opening lines for my chapters – those I’d never given much thought. Thanks, Donald Maass (The Fire in Fiction) for pointing out that the first line of a chapter is as important as the last. Duh. It makes a big difference. I’d also never reflected much on how chapters should begin (subtly, yes) with a character’s goal, or how each scene should have inner and outer turning points.

Reflecting on these revision strategies, maybe the nonfiction/fiction dichotomy is false. In the most engaging nonfiction, chapter opening and closings are vibrant. Goals are pondered; turning point tug readers along. More precisely, it’s that classic rhetorical tools shouldn’t be the only ones in the box when we revisit our writing.

Tools? Tricks? Formulae? To me, these are simply new ways of seeing. Because no matter how much literature you’ve read, analyzed, or taught, if it’s well done there’s a whole lot you can’t see – subtle shifts, ways you’re drawn to a character, the tug of the narrative. Robert Boswell (The Half-Known World) says it well: “Like sex, reading is both a simple delight and a complex one, a nearly effortless pleasure that nonetheless rewards study and labor.” Writing creates the effortless pleasure the way an accomplished host creates a memorable event, through a masterful blend of intuition, instinct, and a whole lot of effort.

1 thought on “Revision 101”

  1. Deb,

    You couldn't be more spot-on with your assessment. Fiction and nonfiction both stalk the same truths; and creative nonfiction in particular, makes good use of "fiction's techniques." (Whose are they anyway?)

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top