Structural and Cosmetic Renovations

There are two kinds of writers, the ones who like cats and the ones who don’t   the ones who prefer music while they’re writing and the ones who need absolute silence the ones who find revision to be at best a painful but necessary chore and the ones who think that it’s the best part of the writing process.  What there aren’t, though, are successful writers who never revise at all.  Those rare writers whose first drafts come out submission-ready usually turn out to have gone through the whole process in detail inside their own heads before they ever start putting down words on screen or paper.  But even the writers who enjoy the revision stage of the process have parts of it they like better than others.

There are, as it happens, at least two different kinds or stages of revision.  One is major structural revision, the sort of work that involves disassembling large chunks of the manuscript and putting them back together in a different configuration, often with new material added in.  This can be a tough job, because it requires holding in your head both the story as it currently exists and the story you want to morph it into, all the while doing the cutting and pasting of the old stuff and the creating of new stuff.  The advent of word processing has made this part a lot easier — time was when “cut and paste” was not just a metaphor, it was the literal way the job was done.

I was around for the tail end of that era, when the “paste” part had been replaced by “transparent tape”, and if you did the work carefully enough and had access to a good Xerox machine, you didn’t have to retype the whole thing all over again.  But within a year of my finishing my dissertation, we had our first household computer-and-printer lashup, and I was happy to bid the old ways goodbye.

The other main type of revision is the line-by-line and word-by-word tweaking of the piece in question, with the goal of making it run as clearly and effectively and, well, tunefully as possible.  This is the part that I’ve always liked best, playing with the words and the sentence rhythms and the paragraph beats, getting the sounds of the piece to fall into line.  (Other people, it’s only fair to say, find this part to be not much better than drudgery.  It takes all kinds.)

And after that, of course, you come to the kind of revision that isn’t really revision at all, it’s stalling.  When you get to the point where you’re putting commas in during the morning and taking them out again in the afternoon, and then going back the next day and rewriting half of the same sentences with semicolons and then reverting them to commas again — at that point, my friend, you’re mostly working to put off the day when you’re going to have to rename your “NameOfStory working draft” to “NameOfStory final version” and get the thing out of the house and into somebody’s submissions queue.

2 thoughts on “Structural and Cosmetic Renovations

  1. First, thank you for using the word “lashup.” It’s delicious.

    Second, since I’m a “write to find out what happens next” writer, revision is a major part of my process. Often my first draft isn’t a complete story but has a lot of good world and character building and then I have to go back and make the sure the plot is all there. Just a few months ago I did literally cut up a printout of a story so I could lay the pieces out and see it differently, just like I used to in high school when I was typing term papers.

  2. Great break down of the editing process – different strokes for different folks, for sure. I know myself to have a bit of a talent for the structural (deconstruct to rebuild) process, am okay with the line-by-line but absolutely detest that final picking over stage that we all seem to go through before we just accept that the thing is done. Sure, it could always be just a bit better but there comes a point that a writer has to let go.

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