The Brutal, Delicate Art of Revision (Revised)

Photo courtesy of Jacob Avonzanto. Used under CC License 2.0.

In my very first writing class in high school, my teacher once told us that “all writing is rewriting.” For some reason, I was certain that rule didn’t apply to me. All of my fiction was perfect from the moment it was written down, or so I thought. I scoffed at second and third drafts. I was in love with the raw, stream-of-consciousness quality of my first drafts and utterly convinced of my own brilliance. Maybe other people needed to revise, but I didn’t.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized there was something to this revision thing. I got a job on the staff of my campus newspaper and when my editor took their red pen to my work, the resulting article always turned out better.

I also started reading about writers who agonized over their creations, reworking the same line fifty or a hundred times before deciding it was acceptable. It finally dawned on me that I was awful. Or, at least, my first drafts were awful, like all first drafts are, and I wasn’t a special case. If I was serious about being a published writer, I had to let go of my pretty turns of phrase and haphazard approach to plotting—and learn to love the editing process.

At this point, I thought I had cracked the code to literary greatness. Step 1: Write a terrible first draft. Step 2: Make a few minor edits and a timeless, award-winning masterpiece would emerge. I would remove a sentence here, shuffle a comma there, and call it a day. But my so-called revisions resulted in pieces that were still 97% identical to my first drafts.

I submitted those “revised” stories to journals and contests and assumed the accolades would pour in.

They didn’t.

Because I wasn’t sending them my best work. If they weren’t exactly first drafts per se, then the pieces I shopped around were 1.5 drafts at best. I was still too timid to make the hard changes that would actually improve my writing. For years, I was editing with a scalpel when what I needed was a chainsaw.

Chainsaw edits vs. scalpel edits

I’ve just started the first round of editing on my novel manuscript. I’ve never written a novel-length work before, so when I finished the first draft, I put it away and let it rest. I find that taking a breather between the rush of writing an exploratory draft (where I first survey the landscape of what my story could become) and the detail-oriented labor of editing, is extremely beneficial. After nine months of putting the novel out of my mind, I’ve forgotten most of what I put on the page. I can approach it with more objectivity and see the imperfections better than if I went straight into edits while the draft was still fresh from the creative oven.

Right now, I’m just reading through the manuscript. I’m not line-editing or moving anything around. Just reading. I’m taking it all in and trying to experience the whole story from the point of view of a reader with no preconceived ideas about where the narrative is headed. This allows me see the entirety of the novel and see where I need to focus my efforts. And by leaving my red pen for a later stage of the process, I can also focus on the big, chainsaw edits before I go in with a scalpel to make tiny adjustments.

This new approach is already paying off. Where in the past, I would probably be stuck wordsmithing the first chapter, I’m instead keeping my attention on the overarching structure. In doing so, I can ask more substantial questions about my characters, plot lines, genre expectations, and more. Does this character’s motivation make sense, not only in this scene, but across their whole arc? Does my structure of using present-day sequences to bookend a series of flashbacks work, or am I inadvertently stealing tension from other parts of the book? Is this story a historical family drama or would it be better as a historical crime thriller? I have to engage with and struggle with these questions with before I can start thinking about sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. That’s a problem for another draft.

You’ve got to tackle the big issues before you sweat the little stuff

As much as it pains me to say it, there are no shortcuts when it comes to editing. Revising a draft is a long, tedious process that requires you to take something you’ve lovingly crafted, brutally tear it apart, and slowly put it back together. You have to be willing to make big, sweeping changes—to delete characters, expand or shrink scenes and subplots, to reshuffle scenes, and sometimes throw it all out the window and try again.

It is not for the faint of heart, but if you are serious about the craft of storytelling and if you want to put your best work out into the world, then you have to accept the necessity of brutal edits, followed by the delicate task of rebuilding and reshaping what’s left into something more cohesive, more emotionally satisfying, and more fun to read than you ever could’ve imagined.

Even this very blog post is a revised version of one I wrote several years ago, back when I was still too scared to fully commit to the rigors of true revision.

So, if you’re ready to edit your fiction, it’s time to put on your game face, pick up the chainsaw and start making some deep cuts. The end result will be so much better for it.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, podcaster, and storyteller. He lives in Tacoma, WA with his family, a dog, and three adorable typewriters. His writing has been published in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. You can listen to his audio drama, The Adventures of Captain Radio, and his writing podcast, Dispatches with Jonny Eberle, wherever you enjoy podcasts.

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