Maybe you have hit a wall. "Revision" in your writing has turned into a series of minor word changes and sentence alterations. You don't feel as if you are really revising. You’re simply marking time, waiting for some new thought, some new way to express your ideas. How to break out of this funk?
One my go-to solutions at this point is an old book. Revision by Kit Reed was published in 1991 but I still find it useful. It was written for the fiction writer. I'm usually stuck in a mess of non-fiction or creative non-fiction. Will any of Reed's techniques be able to help the non-fiction writer, you ask? I do feel somewhat like a trespasser, a person visiting a church I don't attend. If I sit in a foreign pew and stare at someone else’s' altar, will God still hear me? If I read a book about revising fiction, will it help me out of my non-fiction slump? I can say that it does.
Kit Reed is ready for doubters like me: "Even attitudes need revision," she says almost immediately. (p. 4) I have been clinging to the idea that I lack the ability to go any further with my stories. I read this sentence in Reed's book and sheepishly recognize that part of my so-called slump concerning this latest round of rewrites might be a result, not of ability, but the other "A" word: attitude.
Revision, Reed points out, ". . . closes the distance between you and your audience." (p.10) So, revision is not about what the writer wants to say as much as what the writer wants the reader to know. Have I been going about this all wrong? I was writing a series of chapters relating the historic development of forensic science. The first story tells of Paul Revere who identified the war-torn body of a friend from the false teeth Revere had made for him. As I was writing my Paul Revere story, members of my critique group kept saying: "We just want to know about the teeth." I got so caught up in Paul Revere the silversmith, Paul Revere the father of eight children, Paul Revere the Revolutionary, that I included all of those things when I should have been focusing on Paul Revere the maker of false teeth. Kit Reed encourages the revising writer to stop thinking about the story at a certain point and focus on the receiver of the story. My critique group was giving me the same advice.
Reed divides revision into two basic types: 1) draft writing, draft revision; and 2) block construction (or revising as you go). (pp. 29 - 32) Draft revisers write the complete story before beginning revisions. They may make large organizational changes between one draft and the next. Block constructionists work on one sentence until it is perfect then move to the next. They work on one paragraph until it is perfect and so on.
I am a draft writer. I need a beginning, middle, and end before I can make any changes. I admire people who can work from an outline or write the last chapter before they write the first, but I'm not one of those people. I start each story with a vague idea of what I hope to accomplish, who my characters are and, if I'm lucky, something of a plot. Even a work of non-fiction needs this basic plan.
After several revisions, however, when the story seems "cooked,” Reed reminds us that there is still more to do:
“No matter which method we choose, sooner or later we come up against that moment when we have written "the end" and discover we still need to consider one more reading, for that third major kind of revision: revision to strengthen structure and story.
This relates to an important point. There are things you have to do even after you think you are finished." (p.38)
One of the great mysteries of my writing life is why, after I've spent so much time researching, reading, thinking, and preparing to write a story, I can't just skip all the junk and go immediately to a perfect piece. Kit Reed tells me I'm not alone. As frustrating as it sometimes becomes, revision is part of the package. She suggests three ways to tell whether a piece is really done: 1) by reading the works of others and comparing what you've written. 2) by putting the work aside and giving yourself distance from it. 3) by allowing outside readers (critique groups, friends, even editors) to judge whether the piece continues to need work.
I have done all of these things with past work and the truth is, they are all helpful. Unfortunately, the answer I really wish for (Someday you'll get it down perfectly in one try!) doesn't exist.
Reed does provide me with an alternative: a series of step-by-step questions to ask myself as I rework my latest story. The author means her book to guide fiction writers. Will her suggestions help me over the wall I've hit with my non-fiction pieces?
Am I saying what I mean? Are my word choices working for or against me? What about sentence variety? Do I sound like me or the last writer I read? Is my opening interesting? Does my story really begin here? Have I added enough (or too much) detail?
I rethink the beginning to my piece on Zachary Taylor. I had started with the day he became ill. Does my story really start there? My book is about forensic science. Why is Zachary Taylor even interesting to a forensic scientist? This story must begin with his death and the reasons it was considered mysterious enough to warrant forensic research. I want to grab my audience, too. So I start on the day Taylor died:
"July 9, 1850. The news spread quickly: the President of the United States was dead. Many, many people were glad to hear it."
This opening feels better. I have set the time of the story, the character, and a statement that just might make my reader want to know more.
As I begin to write a piece on Jesse James, I keep Reed's question in mind: Am I saying what I mean? I mean to tell a story about forensic science so how do I turn an outlaw's story into a story of science? I must start this story not at Jesse's death, but at the point his death becomes a forensic mystery. I begin the story sixty-six years after Jesse's death, when an elderly man claims that he really is Jesse James. I feel as if I'm beginning to get to the "teeth" of all my stories.