No doubt about it, revision is an art. One of my favorite writers, Rolad Dahl, once said, “Good writing is rewriting.” I read that bit of advice from Mr. Dahl many years ago and took it to heart. If you want to be a good writer, you have to master the art of revision.
I suppose the first step in revision involves rereading what you’ve written. After I finish a writing project, I like to let it sit for a while. I call this the fermentation period. The length of time varies, and depends on many factors. If you’re working against a deadline, the fermentation period might be shorter rather than longer. In any case, after finishing a project, especially a lengthy one such as a novel, you’ve most likely become so immersed in it that you’ve lost some degree of your objectivity. That’s why it’s important to take a break. If you have a trusted first reader, this is the ideal time to have your reader take a look at it. Unless my first reader discovers some major problems, I usually hold off on reviewing his suggestions until I’ve completed my own review.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Give it to your first reader, and then begin reading your work yourself. You can gain a better perspective if you do this reading aloud. That way, you’re using three of your five senses, seeing, speaking, and hearing. Look (and listen) for awkward sentences, clumsy dialogue, word echoes, info dumps, typos, and any way you can say what you’ve said better.
As you revise, you must also keep in mind that if you do change things, you have to be mindful of any ramifications these changes might cause. It’s always good to double check any scenes after you’ve made some changes. In a recent story I was working on, for instance, I made a change of having a guy sit down in a chair and stuff his big, .357 Colt Python into the cushion beside him. As I continued reading the scene, I realized that I subsequently had him drumming his fingers on the cylinder of the weapon, which was on the arm of the chair. I realized that the change I made with the cushion stuffing, made the cylinder drumming impossible.
So after I’ve completed my own rereading and tweaking, I place my revised copy and my first reader’s copy side-by-side and compare them. It’s always interesting to see what my reader caught as compared to my own reading. Many times he noted a lot of the same sentences that I circled in my once-over. Sometimes he catches things that I missed, and I have to address those. Once again, the effect of any changes has to be double checked again to make sure that no new holes have been created.
If time permits, it’s always good to do another rereading. It’s almost a given that you’ll catch more stuff if you do. So when does the revision end? I harken back to a scene from a Henry James story, “A Lesson of the Master.” The young, impressionable writer is thrilled to be at a retreat where this famous and talented author is present. As the young man walks along the pathway, eager to meet his idol, he happens to see the great author walking along the beach reading one of his own books. The young man is surprised to see the established author making corrections to the text as he reads. But if you keep getting caught in an endless cycle of revision, your book will never get published.
I guess it’s fair to say that the task of revision can go on and on, but sometimes you just have to know when to call it quits.