The Pain of Revising and How to Cure It

Here what James A. Michener had to say about revising:

James A. Michener, author

“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”

After reading the towering masterpieces of this American writer, works such as Tales of the South PacificHawaii, and Centennial, I believe it.

At the beginning of my career not only did I not believe Michener , but I hardly ever did any rewriting, other than correcting typos.  This one time I had spent hours on a short story, lovingly carving each word and bringing it to life with my own blood and tears.  When it was finished, in the flush of creation I deemed it perfect and sadly didn’t look at it again.  Instead I sent it out “as is” to an editor.  The story was rejected.  I sent it out again.  Rejected.  And again.  Rejected. 

The fourth time was the charm.  On the standard rejection slip, some kind editor had scribbled.  “Needs ext. revision.”  After getting over my first knee-jerk reaction of angry denial, I spent some time puzzling over what “ext.” meant—surely not “exterior”?  “Extra”?  Extant?  It finally dawned on me that it meant “extensive.”  I sank in my chair, amazed and chagrined…not my perfect story that was so beloved and contained so much of my bs&t (blood, sweat and tears)!

Sheesh, was I embarrassed!

I pulled the manuscript out of it return envelope and started reading.  My face slowly heated up as I became more embarrassed the further I read.  Not only did purple prose stare me in the face, but there were typos.  I struggled with revising it and sent it out again; but I never did sell that story.  I finally filed it under UNSOLD and moved on.

For a couple of years after that, I always read my manuscript over and tried to revise it.  Trouble was, I didn’t really know how to revise.  Then I got my hands on a book, which changed my writing life.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name or author of the book and I loaned it to someone who never gave it back.  However, I learned to enjoy revising, and it became a challenge to find the areas that needed revision.  Once that happened, I started to sell my fiction material.  Most writers I know of credit their success to successful revision of their first raw draft.  Some writers revise many times.  Some only once, but the ones that do no revision at all are rarely successful.

Here are some of the things I have learned about revising, which I will be demonstrating in my next post with my work in progress, Battle Cleric.  It’s sort of a first draft and needs work.  I will share with you how I do it.

1.  Start off stories with a bang.  It doesn’t have to be direct action, but it does have to be compelling, in a way that makes the reader ask questions and WANT to read on to find out the answers.  In short stories, it is called the sizzler, the zinger, or the hook.  In a novel, you want to introduce the main character and give the reader an idea of what the book is going to be about.  If you have a theme for your story, it would be helpful to put it in the first few pages as well in some way.

2.  Don’t give too much of the back story in the beginning.  Let the reader find it out through dialogue, through flashbacks later on, and through deduction.  If you see a man in a robe that is not a bathrobe, custom declares that this story is not set in modern times, and quite possibly not of this world.  That is a clue for the reader about time, place, and circumstance.

Throw away the throwaway words.

3.  Remove all throwaway words.  These include there was, there are, there is, there were.  Check all adjectives and adverbs to see if they are absolutely necessary.  Strength comes from your verbs, but watch out for purple prose.  If you have too many people howling, roaring, stomping, crashing, etc., it starts to become melodrama, which is often unintentionally funny.

4.  Be careful of dialogue tags.  You want to minimize such tags as whispered, sobbed, laughed, choked, gurgled, etc.  Said is the best and most invisible dialogue tag you have in your toolbox of words.  Said is your friend.  Occasionally, you can insert one of the more powerful verbs as a dialogue tag (roared, stammered, shrieked, etc.), but they are like strong spices in the stew of dialogue tagging…meant to be used sparingly.

Watch out for the eyes.

5.  Watch out for eye movement.  Hysterically, she threw her eyes around the room (and what? Spent the next hour searching for them blindly?)  I have seen eyes slanted at, cut toward, sweep a room, send a disgusted glance, and so on.  It has always made me laugh.  You don’t want uninvited laughter from a reader.

6.  Search for awkward phrasing.  For instance, you probably have been told never to end a sentence with a preposition.  But the writing can get stiff and overly formal if you hold strictly to this.  You can either rewrite the sentence to avoid the preposition altogether.  Or you can do it the way you were told not to.  See?  The world didn’t come to an end when I did that.

There is lots more to come.  I learned a ton over the last three or four decades.  And I want to share it all with you.  But not all at once 🙂  So be patient, and practice working with those first six I have just given you.  You will be amazed at the resulting cosmetic and intrinsic value of your writing.


11 responses to “The Pain of Revising and How to Cure It

  1. Oh yes, I’ve definitely written drafts I thought were perfect, and looked back later and found that they were not… Revising can be a tough process sometimes!


  2. Glad you dropped by. And you’re right…revising can be tough. It helps when you know where to start and what to do, though. One of the worst things is to write a book, go through it a zillion times to make sure that everything is perfect, and then find out after it’s published that it could be revised some more. Gahhhhhh!


  3. I prefer Hemingway’s quote to Michener’s. You know, “The first draft of anything is s***.” That man so had a way with words 😉

    My first drafts are terrible. I can’t imagine showing them to anyone, lol. Raya, I don’t think even you saw my very first draft of Gilded Shadows. I still have it if you want some time. Ha.

    When I’m in a more poetic mood, I sometimes think of drafts as analogous to sculpting. That is, the fast, rough strokes come first, to give the piece its general shape. After that, you chip away, maybe add on here and there, some places more than others, until you have a much more shapely work of art. Or at least, you can see what I’ve carved. (Hm, what is this? Maybe a puppy…)


  4. Yes, Hemingway’s quote is pithy but appropos 🙂

    You are head and shoulders above what my skill was when I first sent out that story in my anecdote. However, I find that, no matter what my level of writing expertise, I still seem to have as much revising to do as I did before, just on a higher level.

    I like your analogy…another one that I like is that of creating a vase on a potter’s wheel. First you throw a lump of clay onto the wheel, then you create the opening, then you smooth the sides, then you add the grooves and curves. Sometimes you have to throw more clay on. Throwing the clay is like the first rough draft. All else is revision.

    Thanks for dropping by, Steph.

    Sandra (aka Raya)


  5. I love this post! You gave great advice. It is basic editing but I’m amazed at how many writers don’t grasp the basics of revision. I agree that revising is a pain. I’m one of those people who revise so many times I lose count on what number of draft I’m on. Each time I revise I make my story better. As much as I hate it I know it is necessary.
    I love Hemingway’s quote and Michener’s.


    • Oh, good reply, Haley. I am on the verge of adding some more pointers on revision, knowing when to stop is a good one. Thanks for your kind comments as well. As you know, if a writer gets quality reassurance from others, especially other writers, there’s no stopping him/her. 🙂



  6. Pingback: The Pain of Revising and How to Cure It – Part 2 – Hands-on Rewriting | Wizards and Ogres and Elves…oh my!

  7. No matter how many times I read your listing of things to remember, I find myself saying, “Oh, yeah! I need to remember that!” The beauty of writing is you can revise! Thanks for your posts that remind us to do it and to do it often!
    Hobbit Queen


    • Hiya, Hobbit Queen – nice to see you here. Hope you are feeling better now. I enjoyed your latest post. One has to really feel sorry for the poor bees. You should consider writing a story about new beekeepers. I bet it would be a hit with your associates 🙂 Anyhow, nice blogging. I should mention that I reblogged your “Here’s to You in 2011” around the beginning of January and have gotten a LOT of hits on it. People seem to like the way you write 🙂 Good for you.



  8. This is so similar to my experience with my Thesis. In the first year of my PhD, I thought that the final thesis I would write would be a masterpiece, that every figure would be perfect and all grammer amazing…. Of course, it is not like this at all. Indeed, looking back at my report after one year, I see so many mistakes. So many obvious and blatant things that it is scary.

    One of the most important lessons I have learnt during these past few years is not to aim for something that is perfect. I agree with you that we should not assume that our work is amazing, but I would also add that we should also not aim for perfect work either. What we write (whether that is a thesis or a book) is a reflection of ourselves. If we insist on perfection all the time, not only will we never get there, but also we will remove from our writing what makes it ours.

    So yes, by all means revise (as you said, we should do this!). However, I would also suggest to limit the extent to which you revise. Perhaps your first few things may not be great, but this at least allows you to learn from your mistakes.


  9. Very good comment, Michael, and similar to Haley’s knowing when to stop. Yes, I have seen some people, including myself, who revise so many times that they take the freshness and uniqueness right out of the writing.


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