As I’m sure you’ve heard, writing is a process. It’s so much of a process that there are different processes to the writing process. The 4-Step Process gave way to the 5-Step Process and has now moved even further to the 6 Traits Process. Most people get the idea of Brainstorming or Prewriting. And they certainly move on to the Drafting stage. Many of us even remember to proofread (in so far as Spell Check and Grammar Check don’t help). But there’s a much overlooked part of the process that many folks look up with a shrug when it’s mentioned: Revision.

 

When I was a teacher, my students always dreaded revision. They didn’t want to write and rewrite and rewrite until their work was polished and ready for the final draft. One lovely group began to accuse me of deforestation because I was forcing them to use so much paper to write and revise. I would begin class with the announcement, “Sharpen your axes; we’re gonna chop some trees today!” The not-so-soft dreary sigh of depression would fall over the classroom as I produced the infamous Red Pen and told them to get to work. As I made my rounds from desk-to-desk, answering questions, re-reading drafts and corrections, I realized that many of them didn’t hate revision because they were lazy. Many of my students just didn’t know how to actually revise.

 

There are plenty of checklists out there for revising. Most are for essays. Some are linked to narratives. But you don’t really see too many revision checklists for fiction or poetry (Why, yes, even poetry stands to be revised; we’re not all Robert Frost, nor are we Jack Kerouac). I put together a launch pad of sorts to help to guide revision in creative writing.

 

  1. Will the beginning catch my reader’s interest? The first words are just as important as the last words. The best beginning line I’ve ever read is from Charles Bukowski’s Post Office: “It began as a mistake.”
  2. Have I covered the who, when, and where? You know your character (I hope), and you want to make sure that your audience does too.
  3. Have I eliminated repetitious information? There’s nothing more irritating to a reader than to be told the same information over and over and over and over and over…. Get the idea?
  4. Have I included enough information for clarity? Even short short stories and haikus should have enough in the lines to let the reader know clearly what’s going on.
  5. Are my sentences clear and precise? There’s only one Faulkner and only one Joyce. Convoluted sentences do nothing but lose your reader.
  6. Have I included enough detail to make this believable? The key word here is believable. Even in fiction, you want your reader to believe what you are saying, otherwise she will cast your words to the wind.
  7. Is my conflict evident? A story has to have a conflict or it’s not a story. End of discussion.
  8. Do I have a resolution? All good writing has a resolution. Sometimes you will have resolutions that leave the reader to think, “What next?” Even so, there has to be resolution in your characters to guide the reader.
  9. Does it have the right tone? Funny, sad, horrific… sometimes they mix well together. Sometimes they don’t. You have to know.
  10. Is my dialogue uncluttered and believable? Dialogue works in two parts. It moves the story, and it gives life to the character. Always re-read your dialogue and even say it out loud. If it doesn’t ring true in your ear, it probably won’t ring true in your reader’s ear.

 

Writing is fun, but it’s also work. You’ve got to put in the work to see the results. Before you ever start proofreading, you must revise. Write, revise, leave it for a while, come back and revise again. Cross your t’s and dot your i’s later. Your sentences need to be clear for your ideas to be clear. Sharpen your axes and get out your red pens. Let the revision begin!

john irving

Sharp Axes and Red Pens: Surviving Revising
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