How to Revise Your Writing

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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.

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Using Details in Writing

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You do not have to explain every single drop of water contained in a rain barrel. You have to explain one drop—H2O. The reader will get it.
~George Singleton

When told to provide descriptions and details, inexperienced writers often tend to include too many details, details that have no purpose or that are too much information. How do you know just how much detail to include? My first rule for writing details is to be exact. No matter what you are describing, use the most exact words you can find. Use appropriate terms while avoiding too much jargon, especially if your jargon limits readership severely or makes your writing of interest only to those with the same technical knowledge you are writing about. The exact term can mean the difference between half a dozen words and a single word or two. It also allows you to get directly to the point without digressing in explanations that are not necessary.

The next rule you need to remember is to make sure the details you provide are necessary and important to the story. You might describe a tree and want to write about the multicolored shading of the multitude of leaves; how the branches might twist and turn and scars from nature pockmark the bark; how a squirrel is tucked into an old knot that has rotted out, or the roots jut out of the ground like knees and tentacles. All these descriptions are good and create a wonderful image of a tree, but why would your reader need to see it that way? Does one of the characters see it that way? Unless a character in your story has intimate knowledge of the tree and needs to see all those details—maybe because the character is a botanist or a birdwatcher or a treehugger or someone stuck in that tree for long enough to observe all the little details—there is no need for that kind of detail. If it doesn’t involve the characters, cut it out. If it doesn’t contribute to moving the plot ahead, cut it out. If it doesn’t enhance the reader’s understanding of the characters or the plot, cut it out. If it doesn’t contribute to the overall mood or tone of the story, cut it out.

When you do include details, try to create a bigger picture for things that are encountered as part of a larger setting: a barrel of water instead of raindrops that fill the barrel; a forest instead of individual trees; a blanket of snow instead of hundreds of individual snowflakes. For things characters encounter intimately—for instance, a character who is having the worst time trying to fall asleep will notice everything, from the rustling of leaves outside the window to the lumps in his pillow and the creases on the sheets under him. On the other hand, if a character crashes into bed and falls right asleep, he’s not going to notice whether the sheets are silk or jersey, if the pillows are flat or fluffy, if the birds are chirping outside his window, or even if the bathroom floor is filthy.

Inexperienced writers also have a tendency to want to explain as much as they can. It is important to remember that readers also know a lot of things and it isn’t necessary to explain everything. Unless a character has a very unusual way of putting together a sandwich, there’s no need to explain how a sandwich is made step by step. You need to consider what is common knowledge and assume that your readers will know what is generally known. There’s no need to explain how a car is driven or how a house is built unless it is an unusual car. Even science fiction stories set in space ships don’t go into great detail about how the space ship operates, unless characters are involved in the operation thereof.

It’s exactly what I tell my writing students when creating character profiles and settings. You can write a complete character profile including biographical details, a detailed physical description, and a psychological profile, but not all of that will appear in the story; even if you eventually reveal everything about your character, you certainly should not dump all that information on your readers in a single logorrheic discharge. In the same way we don’t discover everything about a person or place in a single sitting or a single visit, you should only reveal as much details as are encountered and necessary at any given time. Many times, your details will and should only be part of a sentence or two, rarely a paragraph, certainly not a full page. Any physical descriptions should also be interspersed with actions and dialogue. A character’s long hair might be revealed when he tosses his head and his hair flips backwards like a horse’s mane. A weakness for chocolate might be revealed by a bowl of assorted chocolate candies on a character’s kitchen counter or as a centerpiece on a table. It all ties in with the art of showing rather than telling. Filling your prose with descriptions leads with a tendency to tell rather than to show. If you want to create minute detailed descriptions of everything, you might want to try your hand at poetry or creative non-fiction.

Too much detail can be tedious and lead a story away from from its plot. Too many explanations can be tiring and leave nothing to the imagination. They can also burden the reader with too much information. Sometimes, it’s really better to leave things to the reader’s imagination. That’s one of the good things about reading–it stimulates the imagination, and your writing should aim to do that. If you want to explain things, in extensive detail, you might want to try writing non-fiction instead, or instructional materials. Sometimes, you need to give the reader the benefit of the doubt. Readers don’t pick up your book or story knowing nothing. You need to trust that your reader is already knowledgeable about many things, which is why they’re able to read fiction. Unless, of course, you’re writing encyclopedia entries–even then, you need to assume the readers already have certain basic knowledge. Try to think the way the characters would. Describe and explain things according to how the characters see them or experience them. Provide information that will be important to the characters and that will help your characters deal with their problems. Whether or not your character finds the information immediately or later in your story, you have set things up in a world your characters live in, as opposed to blending your world with your story world. If your characters don’t need explanations for certain things, your readers don’t need them either. If your details don’t help your characters or the story, your readers don’t need them. Those are your ultimate cues for how much to include in your fiction.

How to Create Memorable Characters

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[I]t’s not a good idea to try to put your wife into a novel. Not your latest wife, anyway.

~Norman Mailer, quoted in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Third Series, 1967

 

How are characters created? In non-fiction, characters are clearly real people as described by the writer. In fiction, however, characters are supposed to be completely fictitious, a.k.a., unreal, made-up, invented, created, imaginary. And yet, the best writers are the most notorious borrowers, copiers, and imitators, mainly of life. How else would they be able to create surrealistically real scenarios and characters if they did not borrow, copy, or imitate from real life? The best writers are excellent students of life in that they observe life keenly and everything they see becomes a potential source for something they write. They might describe a restaurant, but if they had never sat in a restaurant and observed every little detail about it, from the cutlery to the cuisine, from the service to the servers, from the entrance to the ambience, they would not be able to create a restaurant in words that places the reader exactly where the characters are. The same thing goes for characters. Writers need to observe people closely, watching every movement and pose, from the twitch of the fingers to the facial tics, from the strands of hair to the creases and folds of their clothes, from the twinkling in the eyes to the faintest blue or red capillaries weaving delicate networks on a papery-skinned cheek—such is what brings characters to life. As well, not a single little mannerism should escape them, from how a coffee mug is grasped to how hair is brushed from the face, or how fingers tap or twirl and feet jiggle to the slant of shoulders, the tilt of the head, the curvature of the spine, the way ankles or knees or arms cross—all these make characters more human. To complete that image, characters have voices, different tones, different expressions and ejaculations, different accents, different kinds of laughs. It’s not surprising, therefore, if a writer’s characters resemble the people around them, the people they live with, the people close to them, or even the people they detest and abhor the most. Of course, only those who know both the writer and the people in the writer’s life will know who a writer has modelled a character after. In fact, if you are a writer looking for a character, you need look no farther than your family, friends, and acquaintances. In most cases, writers will pick and blend characteristics so that their fictitious characters are a mish-mash of traits from several real people. Depending on how realistic the fiction is, writers can take all the good traits from several real people and put them in the protagonist, then take all the bad traits from those same people or others and put them in the antagonist. While that may not sound realistic, that would certainly make a great caricature for a cautionary tale, a humorous tale, or a fantasy. Certainly, the more unrealistic characters are, the more impossible it is that they are real people. Of course, that is not to say that there are real people out there who are real characters—which is where our expression comes from for calling people “characters”—the fact that they seem so unreal, it’s almost as if they’ve been made up.

When I give workshops that teach writers how to develop characters, I usually provide participants with a character sheet, not unlike character sheets you might find for role-playing games, because they are, essentially, character creation sheets. Writers can develop their own or look for them in a variety of online writing resources. Basically, a character sheet has three major aspects: (1) the physical features of the character; (2) the biographical-historical background, and (3) the emotional-psychological features of the character.

As the categories suggest, the physical features tell us how tall, heavy, the color and length of hair, the eye color and shape, the shape of the body, identifying marks, hand and foot size, what fingers and toes look like, clothing size, teeth condition, nose and nostril type, neck, etc. It helps to have a picture of someone real, or to create analogies: swan-like neck, flared nostrils, chunky fingers and toes, spade fingernails, etc.

When describing biographical-historical background, we decide how old the character is, birthdate, place of birth, race, nationality, residence, family, relatives, languages, education, skills, places lived, their work, religion, memberships, training, jobs held, and all other types of things you might find in the most comprehensive biodata and curriculum vitae ever.

Third, and probably the most difficult, is establishing the emotional-psychological profile of the character. This includes quirks, beliefs, superstitions, attitudes, intellect, viewpoint on various topics from politics to art and culture to family, personality type, phobias, preferences, desires, weaknesses, dreams, and anything else that reflects their psyches. Finally, every character must have that fatal or tragic flaw. That one thing that is the character’s Achilles heel, the one thing that will affect the character’s success. It can be one or more of the character’s phobias or weaknesses that prevent success, but definitely one thing that within the character that works against overcoming the problem they face in the story. This is the humanizing factor that makes readers more sympathetic towards fictional characters, because we all know that nobody is perfect.

While I have presented a great deal of details that can go into the creation of a character, that is not to say every single detail must be present. As an aid to determining how much detail to include when creating a character, let me just say that the detail should be commensurate to the length of the story. The shorter the story, the less detail; longer, epic stories will need greater detail, because then, characters are exposed to the reader’s scrutiny in a greater variety of situations. They meet more characters, do more things, have more to accomplish or overcome; hence, they need to be more well-thought out, more fleshed-out, more real to account for every possibility along the way. This also makes them more realistic and, ultimately, more sympathetic. Readers will admire heroes but they adore heroes who succeed despite their flaws. In fact, the more flawed the hero, the more sympathetic and, in the end, the more sweet the triumph.

I still want to get a shirt that says: “Beware. Novelist. I’m watching you. I just might write you into my next novel.” Novelists do write people they know into their novels, because it’s the people they know best who provide them with the best fodder to humanize a character. If you want to paint them as the antagonists, however, heed Norman Mailer’s advice: don’t make your characters too much like the people you live with, because then, you’d have to live with them and they’d never let you live it down. They can make your life unbearable, so be careful what you write about them or how you write them into your novel. Especially if it’s your spouse. Unless they don’t read your novels at all, then you’ll be perfectly fine. Still and all, I think it one of the most fun and entertaining things to do as a writer, to include bits and pieces of real people into my characters. I’m sure every great writer has picked traits from people they have encountered to make their characters more interesting and real. The trick is to change the physical characteristics and biography so the real people aren’t easily recognizable. Try it on some character sketches and have fun!

 

On the Internet and Research

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Muddling through the Internet can be a challenge to writers looking for resources, but with enough persistence and perseverance, you can find almost any information you need to write just about anything. Young people nowadays just don’t appreciate what they have, and more mature writers who are not familiar with the Internet and somewhat technophobic don’t know what they’re missing. I still remember when I had to research for academic writing when I was still in school. I was an expert at looking for cross-references, browsing through library indices, book indices, encyclopedias, and trade journals, among other sources. Many times, I had to physically travel all over town just to get information from specific organizations or libraries. The cost of research could be prohibitive from travel alone. If I had the Internet back then, I would have saved mostly on travel time, which took away from reading and writing time. Now, I often need to tear myself away from the Internet because of all the available information that just keeps me wanting to read more. Not to mention, well-designed sites and search engine optimization makes it so much easier to find anything. Like all writing, you just need to use the right words, this time, to find what you want. And if you don’t know the word? Don’t worry. There are dictionaries and thesauri at your fingertips. Now, the only thing stopping you is your typing speed and the speed of your Internet connection. I would never have imagined this 30 years ago. I can barely imagine what there will be 30 years from now!

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