There’s a phrase (or some variation of it) frequently tossed around in writing circles: “There’s no such thing as bad writing, just bad revision.” As with must other sayings, its popularity is linked to the truth behind it. First drafts are, in my opinion, the worst thing about writing. Coming up with something out of seemingly thin air gets me nervous every time, and I don’t really think that will ever go away.
Revisions, on the other hand, I have a much better time with revisions. It’s not about creating something new, but refining what you’ve got. It’s hard work, don’t get me wrong on that mark, but it’s Easy Street compared to the first draft.
Over the last few years, I’ve picked up on a few tips and tricks to make revisions as smooth as possible. Revision styles and tactics do vary among writers from project to project and across different genres.
First, take some time off when you finish a draft. Don’t plunge back into it right away. Time away from your work will let you forget some of the exact details of what you wrote, and then, when you go back to reread it, you’re able to approach it like any other reader. A couple of times, when I’m rereading, I’ll come across an odd sentence and ask myself, “Why the hell did I write that?” How much time should you take off? I’d say about a month. Taking longer and you risk becoming lazy about the work and putting it off to the point where it never gets done.
You should also read your work out loud to yourself. Your ears will pick up on errors that your eyes miss. It’s a bit remedial, but I think everyone’s guilty of forgetting this. No, you don’t have you read aloud every single time, but each draft should get at least one round of the vocal treatment. Even sentences that are structurally and grammatically correct can sound very odd when you hear them.
Don’t be afraid to show your friends what you’re writing. You’re going to have to show someone your work eventually, so you might as well get over that phobia now and save yourself the grief later. Pick a handful of people who are familiar with your writing, people whom you know will give you honest criticism. This involves pointing out your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Give your draft to your feedback group to go over during that month or two you’re taking off. Pick and choose the best pieces of feedback before moving on. Remember that any critique is merely a suggestion. There’s no law saying you have to follow any of the advice you get. Of course, if these are people whom you trust, you should be responsive to some of what they have to say.
Also, if you’ve already sent out work to be published and you’ve received rejection letters, go through those to see what they have to say. Some letters are pretty brief and nothing more than “thanks, but no thanks.” Others, however, have a great level of detail in them. With my short story “Patient Zero,” I received a letter from Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Despite being a form letter, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it included a list of the most common reasons why a submission is turned down. Analog has been publishing for close to 75 years, so they do know a thing or two about writing.
In the end, good revision rests upon three pillars: maintaining some distance from the piece, being attentive to what you’ve written and keeping an open mind to the feedback from others.