You can fix anything but a blank page.
~ Nora Roberts
As a writing teacher, I enjoy nothing more than seeing students produce writing, yet many are reluctant to even start because they worry about how to write their sentences, what to put in, what their style should be, how to handle mechanics. Worse yet, is the student who worries about writing because they say they can’t spell or don’t know how to use quotation marks or when to use commas, semi-colons, and colons. I always tell my students that they should just write without worrying about the technicalities. As long as you are able to put your ideas into words, you’re on your way. All you need to worry about as a writer is to get the writing out, to get the ideas down on the page, because once you’ve written your story down, there’s no limit to how much you can change, correct, and improve your writing until it is ready for your reading public.
Everything anyone writes can be fixed, whether writers do the editing and revision with full knowledge of the technicalities of writing, or leave the majority of the work to their editors. Whether it’s a few punctuation marks or rewriting sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, all writing can be improved. Sometimes it takes just a few changes; other times, the finished work looks nothing like the original writing. It’s still all part of the process of editing and revising. I know a few famous writers who are terrible at spelling, who don’t know how to use punctuation correctly, or who have awful grammar. It’s writers like this who give editors more work. Unfortunately, editors sometimes end up doing a great deal of writing, especially for writers who are prolific and have great story ideas but can’t seem to pick up the mechanics. In such cases, I often think the editor might as well be a co-author, or at least get paid incredibly well. As an English teacher, I try to make writing lessons as educational as possible, but don’t teach mechanics or grammar to high school or adult students because I expect that knowledge to be part of their arsenal. Writers who are insecure about their knowledge of grammar and mechanics of writing should take the initiative to brush up on this basic writing skill. Less experienced writers who truly want to improve their skill will look at everything their editors do to their work because that helps them understand what needs to be changed; editors can also provide them with notes, comments, and explanations for certain changes. Active revision involves writers understanding the reasons for changes, corrections, and suggestions. Even without brush-up lessons, novices can learn much from the process of revision. In fact, even before sending your work to an editor, you should do your own revisions, make corrections, clean up your writing as best you can. Do this and you will find yourself more conscious of your writing, familiar with the mistakes you make, and able to write better later on.
Your work as a writer isn’t over after you’ve written your story. In fact, if you’re particularly fast or inspired, it might take you a lot less time to write than it will to revise your story. You should always keep in mind, though, that there will be nothing to revise, publish, or read if you don’t write in the first place.
Once you’ve written your story, the best thing to do is to set it aside. Let it sleep for at least a week, ideally two weeks to one month. That helps you clear your mind and become somewhat detached from what you’ve written. The longer you stay away from it, the more detached you will be. That way, you can approach your story as if it isn’t yours and be as ruthless as you have to be in the revision process.
Different writers and editors have different approaches to editing and revision. Many times, you’ll hear the recommendation to review content first. Sometimes, I beg to differ. Sometimes, the writing is filled with technical errors that make it extremely difficult to read, let alone make sense out of what there is. The first step I recommend is to clean up whatever you can, as best you can. That means, check your writing for spelling errors, grammar, and mechanical errors. Names should be spelled correctly and consistently throughout. The preferred spelling is American English (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The preferred style book is the MLA Manual of Style or Chicago Manual of Style. If you don’t have access to either (they can both be accessed online) or you want a personal copy, you can get Elements of Style by Strunk & White or Kate L. Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, which is an easier-to-access source based on the Chicago Manual of Style. Penguin Books has a series of writers’ reference books, including the Penguin Writers Manual, the Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar, and the Penguin Guide to Punctuation. There are other resources available, including standard textbooks, that can answer most of your questions on grammar and mechanics. Once that’s done, you can look at your clean copy with less distractions.
When revising for content, you want to make sure your story has a story arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Your events should logically follow the plot or the story arc. Anything that digresses from your story arc can go. Even if you’ve written a novel, your subplots will still be connected to your main plot, either through actions, setting, or characters. You should also check your content for consistency in your timeline, settings, characterization, points of view, even the names used, whether of places, people, or events. Next, check your work for style: in particular, check consistency of voice, syntax, and word choices. Finally, proofread your work one more time before you send it to your editor. In between each step, leave at least a day up to one week before you begin the next step, so that it almost feels as if you are looking at your work with fresh eyes.
As you become more confident in your writing, you will be able to combine steps or tackle them in a different order, something you are more comfortable with. My rationale for recommending this order of editing is: (1) to start with something simple and objective (mechanics) because it helps to clear your mind, before (2) moving on to content and style, which is more complex, and (3) ending with proofreading, which is relatively simple, hence allowing you to return to a more objective state of mind and giving you that bit of detachment that allows you to let go of your work and send it to your editor.