Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Revision Reference

I'm calling my last year "The Year of First Drafts" (or TYFD), since I wrote 6.5 books...half of which are still pretty much first drafts. I wrote furiously, too many ideas crowding my itty bitty brain. There are still too many ideas up there, but the pressure has been relieved. For the most part, I feel like I can breathe/think again. Except now I have all these first drafts to review...plus the four or five ideas still floating around...

Naturally, this year is turning out to be "The Year of Revision" (TYR). I've been revising one project or another since January: spit shining Allure, putting Void in first person, paper editing Relax, I'm a Ninja, and I just finished a light edit of what I had on my WIP Hammered. TYR has been a lot of work so far...not nearly as fun as TYFD. But I have learned a lot.

I thought I'd share some of the more subtle things I've picked up in editing. The little ticks that bog down my own writing, and maybe bog down yours too. I've addressed some of these before, but I thought a comprehensive post was in order.

Force your characters to commit to their actions. Unless it is truly a halfway action, let those verbs speak. This happens when I use quantifiers in unnecessary places. Common offenders: almost, nearly, about, just, only

Example: She almost ran to the door. => She ran to the door.
Example of necessary quantifier: He almost spat in her face, but decided against it.

I'm still trying to break my love affair with dialogue tags, especially those that describe exactly how my character said what they said. I think these are my own writer notes in first draft—reminding myself how the character is reacting as I get to know them. Revision has removed 70% of them.

Example: "Thanks a lot," she said vehemently as she placed her hands on her hips. => "Thanks a lot." She put her hands on her hips.

This is another way I don't let my characters fully commit to their actions. I throw them into weird, unnecessary progressive setups. These can be eliminated for the most part.

Example: I started writing the number. => I wrote the number.
Example of Necessary: I started writing the number, but he interrupted.

Mostly a first person issue, but still something to be wary of in third, especially if you have a more casual style. My "chattiness" usually comes out in rampant interjections, but it can also be found in fragments, slang, and unconventional punctuation/formatting. None of this is "bad;" it just needs to be kept in balance. Otherwise the prose will be too choppy.

Example: Sure, I was about to go all postal on her, but it wasn't my fault, ya know? => I was about to go postal on her, but it wasn't my fault!

I've found most of my repetitiveness to be in "explaining" what my characters just said. This is one of the newest quirks I've discovered; I really didn't know I did this. Let the characters talk; trust that the reader will get it. People who read are smart.

Example: "He won't be bloody still, right?" Stu asked. The guy was squeamish about blood to say the least. Ketchup made him woozy...even fruit punch. => "He won't be bloody, right?" Stu asked. Ketchup made him woozy...even fruit punch.

Stating Observations
Sometimes I stay so firmly in my character's head that I overuse their POV, if that makes any sense. Some of these can be removed. Common offenders: looked, seemed, knew, thought, wondered.

Example: The nurse looked like she was about to laugh. => The nurse was about to laugh.
Example: I knew I didn't have to sing, but I wanted to. => I didn't have to sing, but I wanted to.

When I'm writing, I picture the scene unfolding in a certain way and usually over explain what people are doing while they talk. Common offenders: to, from, away, at (+me/her/him/etc.)

Example: "Did you get dropped on your head as a baby?" He stared at me, right through me it seemed.
I glared right back at him, though he couldn't see. "Actually, yes. I almost died. Thanks for bringing it up."
"Oh." He turned away from me, looking at the black board in front of him.

=> "Did you get dropped on your head as a baby?" He stared through me.
I glared right back, though he couldn't see. "Actually, yes. I almost died. Thanks for bringing it up."
"Oh." He turned back to the black board.

Personal Ticks
We all have them: favorite words and phrases, descriptors we use as a crutch when we blank, common interjections, typical sentence structures, etc. They differ with each writer, but it's important to know your own so you can even them out in revisions. I'll share a few of mine that I'm always on the lookout for:

a little, just, even, dude, okay, cool, incredible, suddenly, awesome, totally, "started+verb," compound sentences, em dashes, and italics/caps for emphasis.

Happy editing, everyone.


  1. I have a headache.

    (I was more creative than that but that's what it boiled down to).

  2. Ooo nice list. A very good checklist, too, for editing...I may have to print that out and use it on future editing trips.

  3. Yes, I'm with you. The year of editing. It's not as fun as the year of writing, but oh so necessary. Thanks for giving me a list, I know I do a lot of those things.

  4. You know what impresses me about you, Natalie? You are so dedicated to bettering your craft. I love that!

    I mean, every writer, every writer finishes a novel thinking it's one grammar check away from perfection. It takes a very grounded person to be willing to go back to that "perfection" and put a few more weeks(or even months) into it. So, way to go you! You are awesome. :)

  5. awesome! can't wait till i get to revising stage. i wish i had a cindybot for the roughdrafting part! ;*)

  6. This is a great list. I do several of these (actually all of them to some degree). It's always so funny to me how I can know that I shouldn't do something and still end up doing it over and over again. Why don't I just write it the way it should be the first time? I guess I find my creativity is impeded when I worry to much about the way I'm writing. Hence the need for endless editing. Thanks for the examples!

  7. Awesome! I'm printing this out and using it as I edit along. You're brilliant.

  8. This is terrific.

    I'm well on my way to whittling my masterpiece down to a single well chosen word.

    With you all the way on the overstaging.

  9. I am in the middle of revising a longer piece than usual and have noticed a lot of the things you mentioned! I think I overwrite some things because I am trying to remind myself of where I am in the story from writing session to writing session.

    Also, I am soooo guilty of having my characters not commit to their actions....but I think that is because in the first draft, I am still discovering the story and am just tentatively "trying it out" , seeing if it feels right for a character to behave in such a way.

    I hate revising.....yet I love its results.

    Good Luck!


  10. I'm with Lady Glamis. I'm printing this out and sticking it to my wall for when I'm reading for my next round of revisions. This is great Natalie!

    It reminds me of a comment I got at my writer's group last night after reading chapter three of my WIP. The chapter needs a good edit (including many of your excellent points here) and someone said, cut it way back, let the reader figure things out as they go. When you explain everything you take the fun of discovery and revelation away from the reader.

  11. We have so many of the same issues. This is such a great list for me. I need to go through my WIP and eliminate them. That could probably save me a couple thousand words.

  12. This is good. I'm in my year of writing still, but when I edit, I'll definitely have to come back to this.

  13. These are some of the best tips on revising I have read, but then you always seem to say just the right thing: honest enough to force us lazy writers off our butts and back to work but nice enough to make us just love you and realize you're doing us a favor. :grins:

    (plurals are indicative of the royal "we")

  14. Thank you! I'm bookmarking this list. It will help so much during editing.

  15. Fabulous examples and great as a revising checklist! I found your link from a friend on Twitter.

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  17. I so needed this. Often times, I'm linked to blogs about the business of writing and not so much the craft of it. This comes in quite handy, thanks so much.

  18. I'm revising right now, so I REALLY needed to read this. Thanks!

  19. Re-commented after correcting errors caused by cold fingers and a medicated stupor:

    I Posted your article on Twitter and was quickly retweeted by an editor at St. Martin's Press and uber-agent Colleen Lindsay. Oh, and I added you to my list of 'bloggers with better blogs than mine' on my blog. Your article rocks! Thank you so very much for sharing. Hope every author in blogville gets a chance to read your ideas.

    (much better)

  20. Really terrific advice, Natalie! Great examples and good reminders for all of us on how to clean up our writing.

  21. This is wonderful! I am bookmarking it for future use. Thank you!

  22. Going through the next draft of my ms will be like a game if I keep these in mind! Great for over-writers like me who are trying to trim up a 110K+ ms!

    Thank you!

  23. I'm revising for my agent now and this check-list is very helpful. I laughed because I do so many of the same things that you do.

    Many thanks for this, Natalie!

  24. I wish I remembered who tweet this post- I would thank them!

    Great advice. I am going to book mark this one as I make a lot of the same mistakes.

  25. Very useful post! Thanks for the insight.

  26. Nice article, Natalie. I find editing takes a fresh mind. Sentences become too easily etched and solidified. Some wordiness is easy to extract. Other times I have to ask myself, what is it I'm trying to say. That question can break up the log jam. A more economical way of saying it usually pops up. Economy of words without sacrificing nuance?
    Or does nuance matter to today's readers?

  27. This is excellent. I know I've committed these offenses, so I'm going to keep these tips in mind during revisions. Thanks for the advice.

    I also write many rough drafts, and am at the point where I'm trying to decide which one to revise.