More on Revision from TWC’s Associate Director, Michelle Cameron. If you missed Part 1, check it out here.
Once you are satisfied that the structure, character development, story arc and descriptions stand up to scrutiny, it’s time for…
STEP #3 – SEE THE TREES (and trim many of them)
Now it’s time to polish your work. You do this through judicious pruning, a careful eye for the details, and lots of attention to your fourth grade grammar teacher.
You might choose to take several sweeps of your manuscript to accomplish these tasks – though they’re certain to merge together as you revise:
- Trim the trees – you don’t really need all those words! A good rule of thumb is to look for where sentences are becoming wordy and revise them to be as simple and direct as you can. Realize that, while the reader loves your prose, less of it is generally more. Some things to keep in mind:
- Are you using strong verbs rather than weak “there is…” constructions?
- Do you need those adjectives and adverbs? Take them out of your sentence and surprise! You’ll find the sentence is generally stronger without them.
- Check again – are you writing as directly and simply as you can? You don’t want to pull the reader out of your story to make sense of what you’re trying to say.
- Wrong word choices – are the words you’ve chosen the right ones? Are there more appropriate choices available? Watch out for blindly substituting synonyms – words have nuances and what might work in one context won’t work in another. (The best way to know the difference, by the way, is to read widely – which, as a writer, you should be doing anyway!)
- Dialogue – it’s through dialogue that we get to know the characters that people your manuscript. You need to make sure that it strikes a balance between too much and too little:
- Do we know who’s talking at all times?
- Have you overused strong dialogue tags such as “exclaimed, protested, shrieked”? Make sure you aren’t relying on the tags to carry the emotion – what’s being said should do that.
- Can you trim some of those more basic dialogue tags – “he said, she said?” If we do know who is speaking, these tags will just clutter up your writing.
- Is there enough context so that the reader is “grounded”? This refers back to description – make sure that just because your characters are speaking, that the reader is able to picture where they’re doing so, and what they’re doing as they talk to one another.
- Grammar – yes, your fourth grade teacher was right all along. Your grammar needs to be pristine because nothing, I repeat, nothing, disturbs a reader more than an ungrammatical sentence. Make sure your sentence structure is parallel and your tenses (past, present, and future) line up throughout the manuscript. All other rules of grammar apply as well.
- Spelling – the spellchecker is a good first step – but that’s all it is. It won’t catch the difference between right and write – a mistake I’ve made a number of times when righting this. One good technique is to print out a copy of your manuscript and read it backwards (a ruler can help by isolating individual lines of type).
STEP #4 – READ THE FOREST
When you complete all this, you’re still not done. Making changes always carries the risk of introducing new errors. And if you’ve taken my advice to “slash and burn” too much to heart, you may find you have excised some of the music out of your prose.
So it’s time to read the entire manuscript – aloud. If you can do it for an audience, that’s great. If not, head to a quiet room where you won’t be interrupted, supply yourself with plenty of fluids (I always resort to tea and honey for this stage of revision) and read.
You want to listen for any places where you struggle, where you aren’t reading what’s actually on the page. Your voice knows better than your eyes at this point. Trust it and make any further adjustments necessary.
By this point, your manuscript should be polished and ready for readers – whether they be agents, editors, or just family and friends. Could you continue to revise? Sure. But if you’ve gone through these four stages of revision, you should be feeling pretty good about the work. And that means it’s time to let it go, to start something new, and to fall in love with writing all over again.