On Revision

On Revision

Craft Notes: A Prose Central Series

By DeWitt Henry, Prose Editor

DeWitt Henry

I evolved shoptalk or notebook sheets during my teaching of fiction workshops, which proved helpful to me and to students. I asked them to ask themselves about character, plot, setting, dialogue, sensory imagery, sentimentality, translation, simultaneous actions and other aspects of craft. But foremost of all was “on character.” This series reflects my personal sense of what makes one person interesting or recognizably different from others in life and on the page. Different writers will have different questions.

Some General Principles About Revision and Self-Editing

All revision begins with a sense of audience. One person? Several people? “Fit readers though few”? People who know you and share your interests and expectations? Strangers? What age group? What demographic? In these notes I am assuming literate adults as our audience, people who come to reading fiction and memoir for entertainment, communion, and wisdom. A “literary audience.”

Projecting yourself as audience is like speaking to a mirror. You know what you are thinking (or think that you do), but “the mirror stage” is also an attempt to see and hear yourself as others see and hear you. You discover the disjunction between knowing yourself as a subject and seeing yourself as an object.

Most of us write for a few good voices in our heads, voices that we’ve incorporated from reading and listening. Teachers, editors, and agents represent “ideal readers,” although with slightly different agendas from each other. Add to that copy editors.

What is the goal of revising? To make your story and its sentences clearer, richer, more concise, and more emphatic. To get deeper into the consciousness of the characters. To shape a work of imagination into a work of art.

Here is one of my favorite writers, Richard Yates, on revision:

“Most of my first drafts read like soap opera. I have to go over and over a scene before I get deep enough into to bring it off. I think I’d be a slick, superficial writer if I didn’t revise all the time. The first draft of Revolutionary Road was very thin, very sentimental. I made the Wheelers sort of nice folks with whom any careless reader could identify. Everything they said was exactly what they meant, and they talked very earnestly together even when they were quarreling. It took me a long time to figure out what a mistake that was—that the best way to handle it was to have them nearly always miss each other’s points, to have them talk around and through and at each other. There’s a great deal of dialogue between them in the finished book, both when they’re affectionate and when they’re fighting, but there’s almost no communication.”


From Jack Smith’s Write and Revise for Publication:

1. Rough draft: get it down, description, dialogue, narrative framing of scenes…both about what you think is important and what you discover.

2. Second draft: fill in and live up to detail and texture of assumptions

3. Finish…new set of eyes to confirm or question. Is this considering/hooking the reader? Time. Return after more experience or different frame of mind. Kill your darlings. Forget how hard it was to write, treat it coldly as the cutting room floor.  Reorganize. Leave out without losing. Work on it was if it were by someone else.


Similarly, here are Peter Selgin’s recommendations from “Revision: Real Writers Revise”:

A first draft should be written from the heart, whereas later drafts are more critical.

Be reckless, shameless, irresponsible and self-indulgent, but get something down. Then return as an emotionless diagnostician.

You need distance. The less we recognize our own words, the better we can judge them.  Save all drafts. Read your words aloud to yourself, to a tape recorder, or have others read them out loud


Character. Do I have all the characters I need? Can I afford to do with two buddies or one instead of three? Are any of my main characters too flat? Are my main characters sufficiently motivated? Characters should want things.

Plot. What’s the first interesting thing that happens in my store? I have chosen the necessary events with which to tell my story? The ending should be unpredictable not only for the reader but for the writer.

Point of view. Have I chosen the best pov? Should I stick to one character’s pov or alternate? Do I keep the pov consistent?

Description. Sensory imagery. The reader should hear see smell taste and fell what your characters do. Specific sensations that grip the senses, not the intellect. “Beautiful hair” vs. “her hair streamed like turnings of steaming copper and bronze from a spinning lathe down both sides of her face” Specific vs. Abstract.

Dialogue. What characters mean rather than what they state. Subtext. Dialogue reveals more than it says. Bring speech to mind rather than tape record it. Dialogue symbolizes speech.

Setting. Setting is character and imposes its own demands on plot.

Flashbacks. A flashback is a digression that works. Beware flashbacks within flashbacks.  Ask yourself why you don’t tell your story in chronological order.

Voice. Style? The reason we read a story more than once?

Theme. Intuitive vs. Conscious vs. forced. When themes emerge, we’re responsible for recognizing and highlighting them.


Grammar and punctuation. Comma usage; indefinite pronouns [it-itis]; repetitions

Why do writers use the imperfect tense? Sam was wearing a pink shirt, vs Sam wore a pink shirt?

Mind your metaphors. Don’t mix.

Mind your modifiers, adjectives or adverbs. Choose the right nouns and verbs.

Kill those clichés.

Watch your attributions. She said, not she smiled.

Excommunicate Latinisms. Words ending in tion. Ism. Acy, ance, ness, and ment.

Cutting and tweaking. Give the reader credit. Cut by 30%.


General Advice:

Build a collective list of common problems in fiction: cliché, inappropriate diction, abrupt point of view switches, passive voice, needless detail, indefinite pronouns, scenes that only convey information and could be put into narration, narration that relates dramatic material and should be put into scene. Read your ms. once all the way through for every problem on the list.

Work against your weaknesses. Notebook explorations. Imagine your story as film. What information is conveyed in the opening shots? Other strategies.

Recommended books and articles about revision. Write and Revise for Publication, by Jack Smith. Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston. Gotham Writers Workshop: Writing Fiction, edited by Alexander Steele. Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd.

Read more Shoptalk posts on writing here.

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