Let’s Talk About Revision

By this point in your life, I’m sure you’ve heard people tell you that reading your work out loud is important. Re-read it three times before submitting it. Have someone else read it over; maybe they’ll catch an error you didn’t. As tedious as it all is, there’s an advantage to these suggestions: a solid, well-revised piece of work. But what does that actually look like?

That depends on the genre you’re working in. A revised essay is going to look different than a revised piece of creative non-fiction. A revised poem is going to look different than a revised short story, novel, etc. Because my strengths fall in creative non-fiction and fiction, let’s take a look at what revised paragraphs from those genres may look like. I prefer to revise by first typing out what I want to say. It’s important to get out what’s in your head first (whether it’s coherent or not) and fidget with it once it’s on the page. (Revision processes are going to differ based on who you are, your style of writing, and how you make revisions.)

Let’s start with fiction. A good piece of fiction, whether it be a short story or novel, is going to have good imagery, character development, a coherent and logical plot, clarity, and so on. Any quality you can think of when you look for a good piece of writing should go into yours–and they’re all things to look for in the revision process. (For an idea on how to develop your character, check out “But How Can I Get to Know Them if They’re a Character in a Story?“)

Example 1a: Fiction
It was never light on the island. The bushed leaves hid the light and the sky was covered with clouds. He was the only one that lived there–a log cabin built by the hands of his father who has passed away just a few months ago. His mother left long ago, fed up with the environment and the lack of human contact.

Axel had grown accustomed to life on the island. He bathed in the fresh water and ate what he hunted. His bed was made of straw and he cooked meat over a fire.

Example 1b: Fiction Revision
The Island never saw sunlight. Bushed leaves coated the tops of the trees and when they were bare, thunderous clouds covered the sky. Rain poured endlessly during the four Beginning Months. Axel was alone in the Woods, living in a log cabin built by the hands of his father. A few months ago, his father had been chased into the river by coyotes and plummeted over the waterfall. As for his mother, she had refused to make the journey when Axel was five, convinced she would be better off living in the hustle and bustle of the City.

At the time of his father’s death, Axel had made the two-day journey to the Outlands. His father had strung the boat to the Shore and, though it had been 12 years since they left the Mainland, he had hopes of returning to his mother.

First notice the different in detail. Example 1a has more broad language whereas example 1b dives into specific examples and more detailed language. It paints a picture. The imagery is more vivid and you start to get an idea of what this island may actually be like. Noticed how I honed in more on an instance that was glazed over the first time around–the death of his father and what that may have looked like in the moment. On further revisions, events like that will get tighter and tighter and you’ll be able to pinpoint what needs to be there and what doesn’t. For this specific example, the description of the fresh water and the food wasn’t interesting. It wasn’t going to be an exciting moment to detail. So I scrapped it.

Creative non-fiction is a little bit different. Too much description can hinder your point and make your writing less powerful. For this one, I’ll take an example of writing I’ve done this year–an earlier version and a revised version for my portfolio. Keep in mind, though, that part of creative non-fiction (like any genre) is taste and preference. The way I write and revise may not be the way someone else in the genre does, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Example 2a: Creative Non-fiction
The town is small, nestled in New York’s wine country. Most people only know the state for the City. So, until you list off some big name college fifteen miles away, it’s almost as if the town doesn’t exist. But it’s there–it’s on some map somewhere. You’ll know it when you see it. Main Street–better known as Route 96–is lined with brick buildings, small businesses, and high school graduates who have never bothered to leave.

Example 2b: Creative Non-fiction Revision
The village is nestled in New York’s wine country. Main Street is lined with small businesses and high school graduates who never bothered to leave. There’s one who was a senior when I was in fifth grade. He’s around 27 now and still hangs out in front of the middle school, rapping on a bike that’s too small for him.

The first example had a lot of detail. Great. But the description and the image of the place I was talking about got buried underneath irrelevant words. You don’t need to know about New York City or nearby college’s or maps to know what the village looks like (notice how changing town to village gives a different image as well). The piece works just as well, if not better, skipping from the wine country to Main Street. And then I added in a specific detail on the end to strengthen the last sentence.

As I’ve said, the revision process is going to look different for everyone. The way you revise depends on your personal taste, your style, and your writer’s voice. This tactic (writing down words then cutting/adding/specifying later) is one of many you can choose to do.

P.S. The fiction piece was written on the spot, but I feel like it may blossom into something. I’ll keep you posted.

Feature image courtesy of The Open Notebook.


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