Revision, from Macro to Micro

Posted on February 24, 2011 by

When I think about revision, there’s a big mental divide: I can actually see the Grand Canyon. On one side is storytelling stuff, the nuts and bolts of plot and character that I’ve talked about before, the stuff that addresses the question, does this story go?

Way over on other side of the divide is the paint job: the question of whether the language used to tell the story is, in any way, pretty. I’ve written about that, too, listing some of the qualities I expect to see in well-written prose.

This isn’t the way I usually revise, mind you. I move through a document doing both at once, at least until I’m on the last pass. But I also know when I am making a structural revision, and when I am tuning the words. The best way for a new writer to know, if they aren’t sure, might be to ask: did this change necessitate others? If I altered this one thing, in other words, did I have to go through the manuscript and work through the consequences of the change? Or did it just make the whole thing flow better?

Belaboring the point: if you decide to switch from first person present to past, you are gonna be changing a lot of verbs. Or imagine if you change your main character’s sex. If you decide to substitute ‘lazed’ for ‘languished,’ on the other hand, you probably only need check that you haven’t used six languid variations already.

The qualities of prose post I mentioned before is something of a checklist. If your prose is ungrammatical, it says, get yourself some grammar. If it’s all dialog, all the time, you might have a balance problem, so consider putting in some narrative. Now, though, I want to talk about the process of actually shaping prose.

I have the idea that polishing your prose is pretty intuitive, at least for most of us. We read aloud, or work with a printed manuscript and a pen in hand, or we just sit at the computer and tweak, tweak, endlessly tweak. The goal, speaking very generally, is to come up with something that reads well–that offers maximum clarity to the reader and also possesses some glimmers of what I’ll call poetic rhythm. After we get to the point where the story’s told and the words are doing the job, we can strive to imbue them with some specialness.

I realize this is a gross generalization. Some writers cannot work forward through a story unless or until each sentence has a bit of sparkle. But a fair proportion of writers–especially beginning writers–seem to start with figuring out how to put together a working story, and then they move on to luminous prose. (It might also be hoped that for most of us, as we get better at the former, our prose also improves at the draft level.)

For sake of discussion, let’s assume you you’ve written a nice bit of fiction: the characters are okay, the plot works, it achieves a clear emotional effect, and the fact is you can probably sell it. But you want to work on the prose, and you want some kind of roadmap on how to start. What to do?

One strategy is to work from the big to the small, the macro, in other words, to the micro.

With this approach, you start by dividing the piece into scenes, then ask yourself: do the events unfold in a logical order? What’s the imagery, and how does it fit in? Does the scene do everything I want it to?

Second, you chop the scene into emotional beats or passages and repeat the process. This is about the words, again, so you’re looking for clumsy bits, things that may toss the reader out of the narrative. You’re also checking how each thought leads into the next, because part of flow is about that–about giving the reader the information in an order calculated to achieve a specific effect. This is true whether you want to ease them through a little lump of character history or if you want to slap them sidewise with a surprise change in in direction.

The above stages are a bit like prepping to paint a room. You’re getting major obstacles out of the way: in a sense, you’re washing and taping your walls.

After passages, naturally enough, we get to painting our paragraphs. Does each accomplish what it’s meant to? Are there any sentences that echo each other, creating wordy redundancies? How do they sound when read aloud? Does the first sentence flow logically from the closer of the paragraph preceding it?

You can probably see where I am headed now. After the paragraphs, you work the sentences. Are they varied, or do they all have the same Character verbed the Subject structure? And after the sentences, you work the words. That means all the lovely fiddly things we think of as perfecting the piece: pruning the adverbs, making sure the pronouns aren’t ambiguous, looking for stronger verbs.

Long, time-consuming, fiddly? Perhaps. If you’re pretty sure you can sell the piece anyway, go on and send it to market, and see what happens. This is one of those exercises that can wait until you feel like a stretch.

Does anyone else do it this way? Your revision thoughts are always welcome.

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