Three Principles of Revision

Revision. Love it or hate it, I don’t care. Just make sure you do it. Revising is the difference between casual and professional writers.

Note: I consider professional writers not as people who get paid for writing (I’m a poet after all), but rather people who are working at certain level with a certain amount of experience and education, whether formal or self-administered.

Macro Before Micro

You know what this means. Don’t rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Don’t spend two hours moving a few words around in a paragraph that you are going to delete later. Make sure you’ve said mostly the right things in mostly the right order before you polish that prose to a high sheen.

Note: This does not apply to poetry quite as much. In poetry, micro is often macro.

Know Thyself

If you’re a writer with a certain amount of education (formal or self-administered) and experience, then you have a general idea about your strengths and weaknesses. My poetry buddies used to make fun of me (affectionately) for the “Goldstein leap” where I would have a carefully constructed poem and then a reckless leap for the ending. I never had the penultimate line, and I often needed it. As a result, I always check for the Goldstein leap at the end of the poem.

When I teach, I make my writing students make up their own revision checklist. This is great for catching the small things you always forget (passive voice, repetitive sentence structure, citation arcana) as well as bigger issues. Although many students would have the some of the same items on their list, each one was slightly different. You have your own sets of strengths and weaknesses. Work to support one and address the others.

Don’t forget your strengths too! Are you good at titles? Do you write killer dialogue? Are your descriptions to die for? Do you write your references perfectly every single time? (If so, you should consider a career in copyediting.) Listing your writing strengths is a good exercise for reminding yourself the things you do well.

Kill Your Darlings

Nothing against your darlings! They are beautifully worded, delectable sentences, words, paragraphs, and image. But just because you love them does not mean they fit in your current work. Take them out and save them for later. Every poet I know has a list of images or lines that they periodically try to put into a poor unsuspecting poem. Is it a possum, brick dust, or the fact that sparrows can sense magnetism? Think carefully about what is good for your specific work, rather than just what is good.

What are your favorite revision tips? What are your darlings?

4 thoughts on “Three Principles of Revision”

  1. How do I revise? Well, I have two main rules, and neither have made me an international bestseller yet…

    Number 1: Always revise from a hardcopy first! For some reason, most glaring problems are inserted by the software the moment you hit the “Print” button; they’re never there when you read on-screen.
    Number 2: Get some other bugger to read it. If your “darlings” are the problem, then you, and by “you” I obviously mean anybody else on Earth but me, will likely be too close to the wood to see the trees. Also, it saves “you” the effort of trying to be objective and read at the same time. I hate multi-tasking.


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