I’m sure you’ve heard how writing a first draft is akin to running a marathon. If so, then revision is like completing an Ironman Triathlon. It pushes your writing muscles to unimaginable lengths. But like any endurance sport, half the battle is overcoming your mental limitations. So today, I want to address some mental tools that I’ve used.
The graveyard: There’s nothing more difficult than selecting an entire chapter and pressing that delete key. I’ll admit there’s even been times when I bend whole scenes to work in that perfect joke. I know a lot of writers do this. It’s understandable. We’ve poured blood, sweat, and precious time into those letters and to kill them seems inhumane. However, most of the time, they’re bad for the manuscript. So what I do is every revision I create, I make new document called THE GRAVEYARD. Now, instead of the delete key, I cut the chapter and paste it into here. The idea being that all that good stuff is there for me to come back to should I need it. Honestly, I rarely use anything from these graveyards, but it eases my mind to know that my darlings live somewhere, even if in purgatory, and lets me focus on what I need to do.
Separate yourself from the words: Sometimes, I fall in love with my own work so much that it’s hard to asses the story, arcs, etc. when revision time comes. Or sometimes, the opposite is true where every word flat out stinks. Neither is a good position to be revising. That’s why it’s critical to practice techniques such as Talia’s outline or Katherine’s index cards. Mentally, it removes us from the text enough to see the structure, the arcs, and the holes.
Note…I think a lot of pantsers cringe at the outlines and the index cards because, well, it’s not the way they are hardwired. As a plotter, I resist redoing these techniques because I did them at the onset – though, inevitably, things changed from what I had planned and the original exercises are no longer 100% correct. But, pantsers: DO THEM. And, plotters: REDO them. It’ll help you see things clearly and you’ll save time in the long run.
Be a sniper, not an A-bomb: Most the time, revision is about tweaking and massaging, rather than blowing the whole thing apart with a complete rewrite (of course, sometimes it might need that – just don’t start with that mindset). A well-crafted, perfectly placed line line will clear up that confusing plot point, character’s motivation, or world building detail. Suddenly, the whole issue is resolved. Of course, it’s not easy to find these sniper points, but keep pouring over the text to find them because, over all, it’ll save you a ton of rewriting.
Drink from the fire hose, but on low flow: Revisions are often overwhelming. If the issue is about a character arc or particular plot thread, it likely resonates through the whole work. Add a few of these and I find myself going, “by golly, nuke the whole thing and begin again.” Stop before you toss any babies out with the bath water. Try to separate all the changes into different buckets, then go over the story and just focus on that single thing. When you finish, hit the next bucket without looking back. Like anything in life, most challenges aren’t so hard when you break them down into manageable chunks.
See it differently: Seriously, see your manuscript differently. The next time it’s time for a revision – change the font, the margins, text color, and/or the line spacing. Our brains are programmed to bypass the familiar. So if you’re used to the look and feel of your manuscript, it’s easy to miss stuff (and not just typos or added words, but bigger stuff too). Changing the formatting is akin to getting a whole new set of eyeballs.
Ask the robot to read it: One of the reasons I enjoy my Kindle so much is the text-to-speech option. On my commute, I plug the sucker into my auxiliary input and that robotic voice reads to me. Recently I had an aha-moment that I’m dying to try on my next revision. Loading my manuscript onto a device that’s capable of text-to-speech and have it read to me. It’ll be clunky, but it’ll force me to hear the words in a completely different cadence than just reading it to myself – and hopefully unearth any glaring issues too.
What other kinds of mental tools do you employ?
Bret Ballou writes Middle Grade fantasy-adventures and is a graduate of the Nevada SCBWI Mentorship Program. He pays for his writing addiction by developing medical devices to help treat Abdominal Aortic Aneurysms. His awesome (though sassy) wife, brand new son, wacky extended family, and red-devil dogs keep him on his toes.