Slash & Burn (Or: How I Tricked Eric Into Thinking I’m A Good Editor)

Most of my writing skills are smoke and mirrors.

No, that’s not true. But it feels like it is, which is relevant.

Let’s start again: I still attend writing group. A frequent topic of conversation between a few of us is whether I’m any good at revision. Eric, who runs the group, says yes, vehemently. It flatters my ego, except for how I know it mostly isn’t true, except for when it is. A lot of things flatter my ego, but I’m pretty good at beating it back down again. That’s also relevant. But for various reasons, he’s been asking me how I edit because, whatever I’m doing, it creates an immediate impression of vast and dramatic improvement. This is belied, of course, by the fact that nothing is ever finished.

Anyway, I told him I’d write a blog post about my revision process so that he could steal it. My process is as follows:

  1. Assume all of your workshop  and preliminary readers probably know better than you do.
  2. Take for granted that all of their advice is correct. Take all of that advice.
  3. Let their readings talk you away from your original goals with the piece.
  4. Look for places concrit might still apply, even if your editors didn’t catch it.
  5. Be willing to delete and rewrite entire scenes, multiple times. (This is where the post title comes from.)
  6. Use comments to keep track of edits you feel you might need, but aren’t sure how to do.
  7. Do your revisions with track changes on, both so that you can change your mind if the rewrite was a bad idea, and also so that you have the courage to rewrite in the first place.
  8. Ignore your revised draft for a few days to a week.
  9. Reread both the original version and the revised version (with markup hidden) before you accept or reject anything.

Are you noticing any problems with this? Good, me too.

One of my great struggles with writing is balancing ego and humility in an effective way. If you’ve known me for a while, this is old news. But for newbies, the short version is that, while I was passionate and dedicated to writing from an early age, for a long time, I thought I was a lot better than I was. As a result, I didn’t take advantage of opportunities to improve, found myself writing in a vacuum, and only belatedly realized the disparity between what I saw and what I actually produced. At the advice of an old and talented friend, I set out to remedy this by vanquishing that ego altogether, writing only for myself for the sheer joy of writing. (In other words, I Embraced the Suck.) It was exactly what I needed at the time. I needed to remind myself why I wrote, and I needed to find a place where I could accept criticism and improve. In a lot of ways, it worked.  I am now much better than I was.

And then it was time to get serious again. So I joined a workshop, wrote more, and started eyeing lit mags. And, armed with my humility and ambition, I got much better, very quickly.

Except, none of my stories. Were ever. FINISHED.

Seriously. 12 huge drafts deep, still blindly groping for that finished product. Each draft was transformed. Each draft created an impression of improvement. Each draft had major flaws and required rewrites. Again. So how was it I started getting congratulations for my revision skills, if i could never actually polish anything? It was baffling. I couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t until I realized that half of the crit I was getting was undoing the same suggestions I had accepted in the first place, and how often my stories were utterly unfocused when I had began with a relatively clear vision, that I got a clue.

The problem is steps 1-3. And that god damn humility. I had needed it at the time. But now I’m trying to move on. I can’t make good decisions if I assume I’m wrong 100% of the time. And I can’t edit for a theme I didn’t write, just because a couple people read it that way. It seems so obvious, stated plainly, but if you don’t have faith in your own writing and your own skills, you have no way of discerning what advice is actually helpful.

So, here is my REVISED revision process:

  1. Figure out which suggestions actually fit your intentions, and ignore the rest.
  2. Be willing to delete and rewrite entire scenes.
  3. Look for places where you need to apply that advice where your editors didn’t catch it.
  4. Use comments to note what changes you need to do where.
  5. Do all your rewrites and revisions with track changes on.
  6. Ignore the revised draft for a few days to a week.
  7. Reread both the original and the revised draft with no markup before you accept anything.
  8. Save the accepted changes as a new document.

I hope that helps.

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