Without a doubt, revision is the most tedious, irritating, necessary task involved in writing well. The act of taking a finished piece of work, tearing it apart, and rebuilding it is a process that some writers think waste too much time to be worth the process. Nevertheless, writing a piece perfectly on the first try is an extremely rare occasion.
Rather than worrying about whether or not revision is necessary, it makes more sense to focusing on making revision as painless and as useful as possible. Here are a few tips for you to keep in mind while writing.
Try to get what you’ve written on paper. Scanning a piece on a computer makes revision extremely difficult, even though it may seem like the more sensible process. By printing out your computer work, you’re able to get more hands-on with your writing process. For most people, it’s also much easier to look at what you’ve written on paper rather than on a screen. Things you might not be able to see on your computer can show up when you’re marking your piece up with paper and pencil.
Start from the beginning. Many people skip around while they’re editing, going after passages they knew were bad when they were writing. In terms of improving your work, however, it makes far more sense to start at the top and going through your piece line by line. Things you thought were brilliant when you started writing might be too overblown, or might not fit in with the rest of your piece. You can’t tell what you might find in your drafts until you read them over. Why risk skipping anything?
Save all your drafts. Not every revision is going to be perfect. Often, you’ll find you get rid of bits and pieces you need later on, or you’ll realize that something you wrote earlier on is better than you expected. In that case, you’ll find that it’s easier to look back if you actually have your old work, rather than if you’re forced to write from memory. If you’re printing out your old drafts already, keeping them together with a paper clip (or, if you revise a lot, a binder clip) is a small step that could save you lots of time later on.
The software you are writing on can help with this immensely. Google Docs and Spreadsheets, for instance, immediately saves all old drafts of your work, which can make revision a far faster process than it usually is.
Avoid clichés. When you’re first writing a piece, it’s entirely possible that some hackneyed phrases might find their way into your writing. When you’re revising, it would be wise to remove as many of these as possible. The reason? Clichés are too often-used to be effective, especially when you don’t know your audience. They work very well, which is why they are used so much. When you avoid clichés, though, your work is more likely to sound unique and interesting than if it’s filled with old, boring writing techniques.
Feel free to experiment. The poet Robert Hayden, former poet laureate of the United States, would alter a poem drastically from its original style in the process of writing. Over dozens of revisions, his poems would change from several lines to full pages to several lines again. Monet’s Waterlilies, one of his better-known poems (it can be found here), was preceded by drafts that looked almost nothing like the final version. Some were more condensed. Some had fewer line breaks. All of them contributed to his final piece.
Don’t fret too much over changing the layout of your piece as you write it. Try adding sections you never had to begin with. Remove paragraphs you don’t want to worry about. The greatest thing about revision is this: if you don’t like what you’ve done with your writing, you can always change it back. And even if you write things you end up not using, everything you consider using will affect your final piece. If you worry too much over preserving your original writing, you won’t be able to write as freely as you need to.
Don’t cherish anything. The worst thing you can do as a writer is to love your writing too much. It constrains you, forces you to do things to go around changing that piece. While loving your own work like this isn’t a bad thing, it can lead you to losing sight of what you’re actually trying to write. Is that one sentence you love really contributing to the piece you’re writing? Could it be reworded to make it more compact? While you may love everything you write, liking it too much risks making it difficult to improve.
Rewrite if necessary. Sometimes, the piece you’re working on needs a complete rewrite. Quite a few writers shy away from this aspect of revision, but it is often more useful to scrap what you have, and rewrite the entire piece line-for-line, than it is to try and revise a lousy draft of your work.
What you need to remember when you’re wondering whether or not a rewrite is desirable is this: writing something you have already written is far easier to write than something you’ve never written before. You’ve already churned out a draft of this: you know what to put in it and how to lay things out. While it might seem tedious, you’ll find that most of the time, rewriting is much faster than the original writing. And it is often easier to rewrite a piece than it is to go over the piece, line for line, and slowly change it into something you can work with.
Wait before showing anybody. Don’t show everybody around you your original draft when you’re planning revision. Until you feel you can’t improve on your work any farther, there’s no reason to give somebody else what you’re written. Take the time to go over it yourself, and revise until you think your work is at least fairly solid.
The benefits to doing this are threefold. First, you will find it much easier to take comments from multiple people and incorporate them all into your revision if each person is editing as few things as possible. Second, more people will be willing to really read something of yours over if they’re pretty sure you’re not asking them to rewrite your entire piece for you. Finally, some people who read unfinished writing like rewriting entire pieces. Give them too much room to work in, and you risk ending with something written by somebody else. (Note to high-schoolers and college students: sure, this might sound appealing to you. But it’s a bad thing to do, and you should all be ashamed of yourselves.)
No work is ever perfect. Unless what you’re writing is really important to you (i.e., if you’re trying to publish something you write), don’t worry too much over how perfect your final piece is. Every writer has limits, and every time you go to revise a piece, you will probably be able to find something that needs fixing, something that can be improved. To some degree, this will help you improve your writing and make it far more worth reading. Take it too far, though, and you risk spending too much time on an individual piece of work. It might do you well to focus on writing new things, rather than focusing on one piece obsessively for too long.
Rory Marinich is a graduate of the New Jersey Governor’s School of the Arts. Some of his writing can be found online here.