The Hat-trick: Tools for Revision
by Chris Mandeville
Knife, scissors, chisel, scalpel, jackhammer—I bet you were expecting a plethora of these types of implements in a post about “tools for revision.” After all, revision is all about cutting, honing, tearing apart and re-crafting your words, right?
Well, not exactly.
Though we often use the terms “editing” and “revising” interchangeably, there is a difference. Editing is detail-oriented and involves honing the prose, voice, pacing, and so forth, in which case a tool like a chisel would be an apt reference. But revision is a completely different task requiring completely different tools, the most essential of which is your hat. Let me explain.
First let’s look at the words editing and revision. Edit means “to change,” whereas revision derives from the Latin “revise” which means “to look at again.” So revision is about seeing—or rather re-seeing—your story, not about changing it. It’s about perspective. Objectivity. Re-visioning your story as a whole. This big-picture stuff is essential before attempting the detail-work of editing where you refine your words.
Revise first. Then edit.
So what does “revision” entail, and what does it have to do with a hat?
Revision (in the world according to me) involves looking at my story on a global level and trying to evaluate if it holds together. Does the plot make sense? Do the characters have plausible—and complete—arcs? Are the critical turning points present? Is the voice of the story consistent? Do I start and end the story in the right places? Does the ending provide a satisfying resolution?
Asking these questions is the easy part. Answering them is where it gets difficult (and also where the hat comes in). It’s hard to answer these questions objectively because as the writer of this story I love my characters, my plot, and all my words. They are my babies, my darlings, my creations, and they are awesome. To be able to answer the big-picture questions about my story objectively I must gain a new perspective: I must re-see my story through fresh eyes. To do this I remove my “writer” identity from the equation: a.k.a. my “writer hat.”
And I replace it with my “re-vision” hat.
When I wear the re-vision hat, my mindset is not that of the writer in love with my own work. Instead I become a kind-but-unbiased outsider who wants to make the story the best it can be. At least that’s what I strive for.
Now to the crux of the matter: how does one obtain this re-vision hat and keep it firmly on one’s head?
Here are some things to try:
- WRITE “THE END.” Have you written your novel through to the end? Even if it’s really rough, even if it’s the worst thing you’ve ever written, even if you’re sure it’s all going to change, finish writing the draft before you attempt to change hats and begin revisions. After all, to re-see something you must first see it.
- TAKE TIME OFF. Time away from your story is one of the best ways to attain an emotional distance from your story. Read more about this here.
- ENJOY SOMEONE ELSE’S STORY. Read a good book or watch a good movie written by someone else. Choose something very different from your own story and immerse yourself in it. Bathe, bask, and live in that world, then emerge fresh and renewed to return to your own.
- CRITIQUE SOMEONE ELSE’S STORY. Read a book or watch a movie with a critical eye. Focus on the big-picture perspective and look for plot holes, character inconsistencies, flaws in logic, and things that are confusing and/or unnecessary. Try not to get bogged down in the minutia of word choice, hair color, scene order and the like. After seeing someone else’s story through this re-visionist lens, you may find it an easy transition to turn your critical gaze on your own work.
- WRITE SOMETHING ELSE. Perhaps you’re one of those writers who never stops writing, so you find yourself at loose ends when you’re in that dead-space between writing a draft and revising it. If you’re compelled to write something, go ahead, but make your new project as far-removed as possible from the draft you just completed. Avoid using the same characters, story-world, theme, and even genre if you can help it. The further away you venture, the more emotional distance you’ll gain between you and the project you want to revise.
- MAKE A CHECKLIST. What are the big-picture issues you believe should be addressed in a revision, and which issues are better saved for the editing process? Make a two-column list with “revision topics” on one side and “editing topics” on the other. Remember to divide topics by big-picture scope vs. detail-oriented. Try out your list by using it to evaluate someone else’s work—a movie or short story. Then refine your list based on your experience. Now you have a checklist for revising your own work. If you get bogged down while revising, go back to your list and make sure you’re focused on the appropriate topics.
- PRETEND. If all else fails, pretend the story is not yours. Tell yourself that the story was drafted by a promising writer who is too close to the work to see it objectively. This writer would benefit from an outside perspective, and has enlisted your help. Treat the work with kindness and respect, but be honest about the flaws you see. You owe it to that writer to give him/her the full benefit of your objectivity and the full impact of your story-writing wisdom and experience.
However you go about it, the trick is to find a way to distance yourself from your project enough to gain some measure of objectivity. From this objective perspective you will—hopefully—be able to re-see your story and revise it into something far better than the writer-you could have imagined.
P.S. If you’d like to wear an actual hat when revising, that’s totally up to you.
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. For more information, please visit her website.