Revision: a basic how-to

I’m in a constant state of revision, both when it comes to my novels and it my job as a newspaper editor. If I’m not editing my own articles and manuscripts, I’m editing someone else’s. As a friend recently lamented, “Writing really doesn’t end, does it? It’s never perfect enough.” True. There does come a time when something has to be finished, though—whether prompted by a publication deadline or because you just can’t stand to play with it anymore.

So I offer these basic revision tips as a way to rein in the chaos and make your process more efficient and effective. They work whether you are revising an article, a press release, a novel or a short story:

  1. Shut your office door and read your draft out loud to yourself—and don’t just mumble. Do it in your best news announcer or NPR commentator voice. This helps you see whether you have enough rhythm, enough flow. It also helps you pay better attention to the words on the screen so you’ll notice typos and other problematic issues.
  2. Determine what’s missing, and fix. Do you have enough voices? If it’s a news story, are both sides of the issue addressed?  If it’s fiction, do you have enough characters? Are you doing more telling than showing?
  3. If it’s journalism, add a headline and make sure you have non-verbal elements to accompany the story—strong photos, charts, graphs, etc.
  4. Show your piece to someone, anyone, and then rest at least a day, though even just an hour of putting it aside can help you develop fresh eyes.
  5. Then come back to the piece one more time for a final revision. This might mean a full rewrite, or just a few tweaks (adding a source, deleting a section, etc.).

Above all: stay tight, keep your head clear and don’t be afraid to cut. Happy revising!