Lenses for Revising

Clouds of yesteryear. Y indeed.

About a month ago, I had a brief conversation on Twitter about revision. Of all the things I’ve learned about writing, accepting the need to revise has improved my writing the most.

But it was hard to actually DO. For one thing, my background in writing and editing professionally meant that my drafts were mechanically just fine. (The sentences made sense. Paragraphs flowed.) So far, so good. But what I was writing felt unsatisfying (and wasn't getting published). So beyond editing, I didn't know what to do. 

Learning to revise took practice. As much as I enjoy revising, in the past year or so, I haven’t done much revision. Because (gestures at everything) reasons, and because I’ve been writing first drafts.

While daydreaming (succumbing to the allure of thinking about the thing I'm not working on NOW) about how I’d approach revising a finished draft of a short (or maybe long?) piece, I found myself articulating changes through three lenses: subject, ambition (form?), and execution.

Notice the question mark. The terms, and in fact the whole idea, remains a work in progress.

So, here’s what I mean. Maybe. Sorta. Note that I’m trying to use examples that apply to both fiction and nonfiction.

Subject: What are you writing about? Family, thirtysomething angst, generalized ennui, revolution?

As you revise: Try being more specific. Like “Family relationships as they fray in the face of an unrelenting illness” or “coming of age at a time when your existence is a criminal act.” Perhaps pose a question: “Should families protect their secrets in an age of home DNA swabs?” Perhaps you're excited about illness symptoms instead of whole diseases.

Ambition: What form do you envision this taking—what are you aiming for? Again, specifics might help. “Prose” may be too general: is it a column for a family newspaper or a braided essay? A historical romance just like XXX on the bestseller list? A sonnet? A thoughtful if sprawling modern family saga that takes on a classic theme? A straightforward narrative nonfiction explanation? It’s not “cheating” to think of where you might to publish it: experimental zine, mass market paperback, The New Yorker. It's not "cheating" to pick a book just like (but different from) the one you're writing.

As you revise: Is your chosen ambition (form) a good match for your subject? Perhaps it’s TOO good a match for your purposes—is it cliché, even? (Remember, you get to decide what you’re aiming for; one person’s cliché is another’s enduring truth.) Or is the mismatch its strength—in which case, try leaning into it so a reader knows you're doing this on purpose.

Execution: How well does this draft fulfill that ambition—so far? Where is it not quite what it could be? Where does it sing? (Read it aloud; it’s amazing what you can learn.)

As you revise: Think beyond the basics, beyond mastery of the tools of grammar and spelling and even the details of your subject. Are your choices consistent throughout the draft (only one Tuesday per week, Jackson always named Jackson and never Jared, third person past never present)? (Yes, you might create weeks of many Tuesdays or a Jackson who becomes a Jared, but you know what I mean.) Is it too long? Does it need research to go with personal experience? Does it need consequences instead of coincidence?

Of course, these three lenses aren’t completely separate—changing one may change others. They’re elements of a Venn Diagram, maybe. And maybe your overall writing goal is to maximize the overlap. Again: maybe?

Where you find your piece lacking can help you determine what the next step in revision is.

You might find that you’ve matched your subject well with your ambition, but your execution isn’t quite there. Dive in! Revising might look a lot like “fixing what’s there” and “moving paragraphs” instead of “starting over.”

You might find that your execution is basically okay (my problem: the sentences all make sense), but your subject is hazy. “I don’t know what this is ABOUT. I WANTED to write a sonnet about furniture-making, but I keep running into different grades of lumber that I have to define.” Again, targeting your subject might help. Or change your ambition: instead of a sonnet, write a long discursive essay. (Pull from it later for a sonnet.)

You might write a well-executed piece about a meaningful subject, and it might be published in exactly the place you aimed for. Congratulations! This process may absolutely fulfill your hopes. If it doesn’t, you could experiment next time with form: can you make it funkier? Less expected? Less (or more) “literary”? Can you write something that drips with raw feeling and comes to less tidy conclusions? A piece aiming at a Chicken Soup publication would likely appeal less to a literary journal, and vice versa.

I’m sure these lenses aren't unique to me, by the way. Shoulders of giants and all that. I hope thinking about them is useful for other peopleI know I'm thinking. And, come to think of it, I do have a large revision on my horizon. So it wasn't daydreaming after all!