Yes, I’m still under deadline, but an interesting issue came up in the comments on my last post about perfectionism. Perfectionists tend to be nitpicky, no surprise there. But there’s a time when that trait is very helpful, and a time when we need to ignore the compulsion to tweak. How do we tell the difference?
Others have written about how to revise or edit a story. Those stages are great to understand. Really great. As in, I-wish-I-understood-them-a-couple-years-ago-and-saved-myself-a-lot-of-time great, but such is the learning curve. Now I want to look at those stages and what they mean for perfectionists.
Prologue to the Revision Process: Finish the Story
Before we even start on the revision process, we need to finish the story. Many people give advice to not edit previous chapters before finishing the draft of the whole thing. Usually, the thinking goes like this: If we start editing before we’re finished, there’s a greater chance we’ll never finish the story and much of that editing time will be wasted further down the road.
I think that’s great advice. Why spend time tweaking a paragraph that might be deleted once you start the real editing? However, I *cough* don’t always follow this advice. And yes, I’ve managed to finish multiple stories regardless because I’m stubborn that way.
My compromise is to re-read only the previous chapter or scene before I start my writing day. I justify this “rule-breaking” by saying it helps me get back into the story’s voice, characters’ heads, etc. During this pass, I try to change things only if they really irritate me. Then I start drafting the new stuff.
The 4 Stages of Revision
Assuming we have a completed story (manuscript, screenplay, etc.), now we can move on to improving it.
- Stage 1: Revising
Revising is very different from editing and the sooner we understand this, the better. Revising means taking a look at the big picture. In some ways, we’re starting from scratch by deciding what we want to accomplish with the story/scene/character arcs.
Think of it this way: Revising = Redoing. We might have to redo whole scenes, arcs, or character background. This step is especially important if we’re pantsers and not plotters.
- Is the story arc solid?
- Does our story start in the right place?
- Are all the scenes necessary?
- Do the scenes have multiple reasons for being in the story (character development and plot point, etc.)?
- Does each scene have an arc (emotional and story-wise)?
- Do the scenes start and stop at the right points for that arc?
- Is the Goal/Motivation/Conflict clear for every scene and character?
- Do all the main and major secondary characters have arcs?
- Are the characters’ motivations appropriate and deep enough?
- Are the characters likable and sympathetic?
- Is there tension on every page?
- Is the pacing slow in any spots?
This is not the place to let our inner perfectionist out. This stage involves cutting chunks of backstory, description, boring chit-chat dialogue, and paragraphs of throat-clearing at the beginnings of the story and scenes.
At this stage, we might “re-imagine” entire scenes to get the important plot point across in a different way. We might move chunks of scenes around to strengthen an emotional arc. We might change the setting, or even which characters appear in the scene.
Word choice does not matter here. What matters here is getting the structure of the story right. Think form, not format.
- Stage 2: Editing
Only after the structure of the story is solid do we narrow our focus to the words themselves.
- Are our sentences and paragraphs clear?
- Are the sentences tight without wordiness or being over-written?
- Do we have a consistent tone and voice?
- Is the point-of-view solid (no head-hopping)?
- Do the characters’ motivations or emotions need to be fleshed out on the page?
- Do we need to add or change things to make the characters more likable or sympathetic?
- Do the writing and tone create the right reactions and emotions in the reader?
- Is everything “shown” that should be shown and “told” that should be told?
- Are there any places to add subtext or foreshadowing?
- Is it too preachy?
- Are there any places with too much/too little subtlety?
- Is the reader able to “see” the story from our writing?
- Is the dialogue realistic?
- Do we say the same thing multiple ways or times?
- Is the word count right for the target market?
Word choice and other nitpicky things do matter here if they affect clarity. This stage is about ensuring our story makes sense in the smaller picture. This is the if-we-got-hit-by-a-bus-tomorrow-our-story-could-be-published-anyway stage. It’s not perfect yet, but all the elements of story/plot/character are on the page.
- Stage 3: Polishing
Now we can worry about word choice. Yay! (I don’t actually enjoy word choice nitpickiness, but at least I don’t have to tell that inner perfectionist to shut up anymore once I reach this stage.) Our focus has narrowed to the point that we shouldn’t be changing anything bigger than paragraphs anymore.
- Are the paragraph breaks in the right places for ideas to hang together?
- Is the grammar clean?
- Are transitions between scenes and settings smooth?
- Are there unclear pronouns or dialogue attribution?
- Are there unnecessary adjectives or adverbs?
- Is every sentence, paragraph, and scene as tight as it can be?
- Are dialogue attributions properly punctuated as beats or tags?
- Do we misuse any homonyms (there/their/they’re, its/it’s, rain/reign/rein, etc.) or similar words (everyday vs. every day, awhile vs. a while, then vs. than, further vs. farther, etc.)?
- Do we misuse any unfamiliar words (do we love our thesaurus too much)?
- Do we overuse any words (do your characters nod or smile too much)?
- Can we delete any filler words (that, only, just, very, still, etc.)?
Word choice does matter here. Now is the time to let that nitpicky perfectionist go to town on making every sentence as perfect as can be.
- Stage 4: Tweaking
Hah. Trick answer. There is no Stage 4. When we’ve finished the list above, we need to stop.
As I mentioned in my last post, the tweaking will never end because a word choice that sounds perfect today won’t seem quite right tomorrow. That doesn’t mean the word is wrong.
After completing this process once, we’ve made the story as good as we can make it. Now it’s time to bring in critique partners and beta readers. Have them concentrate on some of the issues from the sections above.
Maybe you’ll have your beta readers focus on the Stage 1 stuff and your critique partners focus on Stages 2 and 3. However you decide to tackle the project, you’ll probably do a second round through these stages as you address the issues they find.
Some people might think going through this process twice sounds like a lot. And maybe they’re plotters who already know the purpose of each scene and the goal/motivation/conflict for each character. Others might think only two times sounds like a big improvement over their current endless passes.
The point is that the better we know which stage we’re in, the less likely we’re going to waste time editing things that don’t matter. I had to learn this the hard way, as my first a-bigger-number-than-I-want-to-admit passes were all Stage 3 level. *ahem* Learn from my mistake, and hopefully this will save you from that problem.
Once you’ve gone through the process twice, you should submit. Does that mean it’s good enough for publication? Not necessarily. But it’s as good as you can make it at this point in your learning curve. And you might learn something from the submission process that you can apply the next time around.
What do you think of this breakdown? Does this help keep you focused on what to look for—and what not to look for—during your editing passes? Can you think of other things that should be on those lists? Do you disagree with this approach?Pin It