Revision and Rewriting
The last great advocate of unrevised “spontaneous” writing was Jack Kerouac, who for a while lived under the adage, “First word best word.” He claimed for a while that he didn’t revise his work – that it flowed directly from his mind to the page, like a jazz musician improvising a solo. After his death, biographers looking through his original manuscripts found plenty of revisions and corrections in his work, especially in the one novel for which he will best be remembered, On the Road. If you reverse the comparison for just a moment, it may just prove that sometimes even great improvisers may wish they could call back some of those notes they’ve “blown.”
It may also suggest that even if the first word is the best word, the first word may not always be the word that comes to you first.
It’s also an example of mistaking the process of writing for the product of writing. Some folks think that if you want to write long, flowing passages of fluidly lyrical prose you have to write it in long flowing passages. Sometimes it happens that way. Most of the time it doesn’t. That beautiful passage has most often been cut into pieces, rearranged, had words lifted out of it and other words slipped into their places. It’s been completely started over two or three times, and the beginning of one attempt is grafted onto the middle of another. That stream of “effortless” prose was usually produced in a very messy way. The only thing that’s really “effortless” about it is the way you read it – which is why the writer spent all that time working on it in the first place.
The revision and rewriting processes go on in a number of different ways. I use a lot of paper: writing one version in a notebook, printing out another from a computer file, scribbling on the printed version and then going back to another notebook before doing another version on the computer. A writer like Algis Budrys does all the revision and rewriting in his head, so that when he finally sits down at the computer he rarely has to go back and revise a passage – or so he says. That sort of sounds like the kind of facility one has when he or she can play thirty games of chess at once, blindfolded. But the process of revising, of “getting the words right,” still goes on, even if the only evidence of all that work is left in the brain cells of the author.
Why do we revise?
Generally, we revise for two reasons. The first reason is that something is missing in our telling of the story: important details have been left out; some aspect of the story doesn’t seem to jell or ring true; or perhaps the order of your amassed scenes and details isn’t right – some important piece of information should be divulged earlier or some important point shouldn’t be made until the final paragraph. This point also covers the opposite situation: having way too much in the story that needs to be removed.
The second reason may have more to do with the “voice” of the story: too distant, too close, too detached, too involved. In that case, what Alexander Pope said about poems is true for stories as well: “The sound must be an echo of the sense.” That is, the language we use must be suited to the story we’re trying to tell.
Okay, so there’s a third reason we revise: we change our minds (like I’ve done now). We started a story believing it will add up to A, B and C, but while we’re writing it we discover that the events really add up to C, A and B. You change whatever is necessary to reflect your new knowledge.
The creation of a work of fiction can be a long, grueling process. As much as we try for perfection, we fall short. There is always room for improvement, even in the generally accepted “classics” of fiction, short or long. However, it’s also possible to kill a story with revisions. It’s possible to rewrite and revise the same piece until you’ve lost all interest in it, and if it no longer interests you, how can you expect it to interest your readers?
Another problem many beginning writers have is that they fall in love with their own words and sentences – or they at least they grow accustomed to them. They lose the ability to read over their sentences critically and determine if the words really communicate what they want to communicate.
Fall in love with your words all you want – as long as you don’t get married to them, at least without a long, testing courtship.
You should remember that language is simply the means by which the story is conveyed from your imagination to the reader’s imagination. You can use beautifully structured language, but it mustn’t be so beautiful that it obscures your story or detracts from its telling. George Orwell compared good prose to a clear window through which you can see perfectly; if it’s dirty or opaque, it’s not doing the job it was intended to do, which is to let you see through it and to let the light shine through.
Alter your words as much as you need to convey the story you want to tell.
A few basic approaches to revision
1. Read the story aloud. Note the places where you get lost in your own words, where you fumble in reading them or where something strikes you as not sounding right. Stories started off as an oral form, after all, and putting the written words back into their spoken form helps you to gain a new perspective on them.
2. Have someone else read the story, aloud or to themselves. Listening to someone else read your story gives you more “distance” on it and helps you see what’s working and what isn’t. If someone reads your story silently, ask him or her to tell you – not if they “like it” or if they like the “style” – but if they “understand” what’s happening. Do they know who goes through the front door of the church in the opening scene? Did they know the heroine was really fooling the policeman when she said she didn’t know where she was? What’s clear and makes sense? What’s unintentionally obscure and confounding?
3. Put the story away for a while (Days? Weeks? Months? Longer?). That’s another way to gain a critical distance on your work. The passage of time helps you figure out what words really work and what words only seem to work because you’ve read them over so many times.
Revisions involve close work with the “text” (i.e. the words on paper): re-casting clunky sentences; reordering paragraphs; cutting the first scene; moving a scene from the middle to the beginning; cutting out redundant words and phrases; clearing up tense problems; fixing grammatical gaffes; removing unintended points-of-view shifts; etc.
Rewriting may include all of the above, but rather than tinker with all those sheets of paper, you put them aside and start fresh: either just glancing at the previous manuscript to get a point or two right, or not looking at the previous manuscript at all. Pretend that it’s lost, or that you burned it, or that your dog ate it. What you do from there is go back to the source – the story as it existed in your head – and forget about all the words you’ve written so far. Some of what you write will not change much. Some of it will change completely. After you’ve done the rewrite, you may decide that you liked the first version better, but by doing the rewrite you at least can compare the two versions and decide which one works best. Most often, you will find that pieces of the first version work best for some parts, and pieces of the rewrite work better in other parts, and you combine what works best from each one.
As an exercise, take out a page of your writing that’s fairly well along. Look it over.
Now pretend that an editor has requested that you cut at least a third of this page. The story will be published, but a third of it has to go.
What do you cut without hurting the story? Is it possible to combine and/or compress what you’ve written? Are there any redundancies you can cut out? Are there any images that might be better conveyed in a shorter manner? Give it a shot.
As another exercise, take out another page of your writing.
Read it over carefully. Then, turn it over, or put it on the floor, or in another room. Just get it somewhere where you can’t look at it.
Once the page is tucked away, rewrite it.
When you’re finished, read over the two versions. Don’t be surprised if you find the second version clearer and more concise.