Note: I’m writing this piece in one dash. After I’m done, I’ll share the number of revisions made before hitting publish.
I share a love-hate relationship with blank sheets. Currently, I have more than 140 drafts, ranging from essays to short fiction to novellas. I’d do anything but revise them. I’ll happily start a fresh one, like this piece. There are times when I’m tested by a writer’s block and taunted by a white, blank sheet of paper, and there are times when I’d rather paint walls of a new room and decorate it from scratch than spring clean the cluttered one.
Fortunately, I’m not alone. Most writers act bipolar in this matter. Unfortunately, none can run away from self-revision. To make the task a bit easier and scientific, I follow these 10 unskippable steps of self-editing useful for all genres and lengths:
STEP 1: Let time work its magic
Unless your content is time-sensitive, time is your best bud—Let it go!
Really, I mean it. The reason behind my unfinished drafts is that I’m sort of incubating them. After scrawling my draft, I let it sit for at least a week. The piece looks different and I handle it with a fresh perspective. Like an outsider.
Revision baffles, because we memorize the write-up sentence by sentence and tend to overlook errors in grammar, structure, and articulation. Incubation allows us the necessary time to forget that structure and approach with better objectiveness.
STEP 2: Go hard copy
Printing out your digital work is a favor to self—How would I feel about this story if I read it as book by someone else?—hard copy gives a tactile experience.
Print a double-spaced copy regardless of the number of pages. The point is to be able to refer back and forth and to be able to make notes.
STEP 3: Change the scenery
In other words, take your composition on a date.
Most writers roam around with their binders and sit down in a quiet place to read, a place with fewer interruptions, where they are less likely to run into someone, like a coffee shop or even flight.
Read as much as possible in a stretch to understand the flow of thoughts.
STEP 4: Pen down all pauses
While reading, mark things that halt you—If something looks abrupt, confusing, or out of flow to you, it’ll certainly back off your readers. Don’t ignore your inner voice (or eye & brow movements, head tilts, sighs, in my case!). Use margins for jotting down your observations:
Too many ‘I’s used
Cross check dress with Germany in 60s
A more suitable synonym for _____
Felt bored/pumped up here!
STEP 5: Answer these three questions
Most of your revision comments will need you to answer these:
Should I CUT it?
Do I need to ADD something here?
Would it be better if I MOVEd it to (someplace)?
Cut, Add, Move (CAM)—that’s all you need!
STEP 6: Zoom out
I know some super-organized writers who outline all their ideas before sitting down to just write. Honestly, it freaks me out. And that’s why zooming out is step 6, reverse outlining.
Fill a fresh page (digital or otherwise) like this:
- Chapter no. (with the page range)
- Chapter summary
Ensure that it is done in no more than two pages. You’ll be able to see the start, all the (right/wrong) twists and turns, and the ending. Navigating with this map, identify what chapters need to be Cut (trim/delete), Added (new/modify) or Moved (club/create).
STEP 7: Spot patterns
Once the chapters as a whole are sorted, it’s time to delve deeper into the paragraphs and scenes. Outlining them is not possible, so look for patterns and repetitions in your work and CAM them.
Is there a similarity in the way I begin (or end) my chapters?
What expectations does each chapter set?
Are they getting fulfilled by the end of that chapter?
Are my patterns new or redundant?
We all have certain ‘style’ tendencies. Pick out your tendencies and predictabilities—Retain those that distinguish you, chop out those on which portray you weak.
Write like yourself and review like your rival.
STEP 8: Zoom in
By this time you’d, probably, be pulling your hair and considering outsourcing the rest of the activity. Hold on for a little longer! It’s the same exercise, but for individual sentences:
Is there a similarity in the way I begin or end my sentences?
What expectations does each paragraph set?
Are they getting fulfilled by the end of that paragraph?
Do my patterns feel redundant?
For example, I have a habit of dramatizing my sentences by starting them with, “And so… “, “But then… ” or “Why? Because… “ While they do lend my writing a distinct flavor, they also take away the content’s essence.
STEP 9: Meet the Devil (or the God)
“Devil is in the details.” ~ lazy fellas.
“God is in the details.” ~ quality writers.
Investigate your word choice. This is important as all eras, age groups, sexes, regions, education level, family backgrounds, etc. have their own phrases, jargon, and dialect. Specificity of words is what winnows out eminent writing from a heap of regular work.
Every word has its place and every action or emotion deserves its most definitive term.
Mark terms/phrases that should be removed or replaced with a more suitable one. Of course, when a couple kisses you’re going to refer to it as a kiss, but you can be precise about how it was—a deep kiss, a peck, a make-out, a smooch, a blow, or a graze.
STEP 10: Sit tight for a major revision
By now, your work is read, marked up, outlined, and CAMed on multiple levels. Heretofore, give yourself a rational timeline to do a major revision broken by weekly deadlines and daily goals such as, “Do at least 2 pages daily and revise 3 chapters by Saturday.”
The Big Question: How to know it’s done?
Well, there is no right answer to this. There is, however, a point where you find yourself rearranging/reframing the same sentences and words. When you reach the point where you’re constantly juggling between two equally great expressions that, upon exchanging, are in no way changing the meaning of the sentence, you’re done!
I’m done too! Yay!!
- Word count (first draft): 1157
- Word count (final draft): 1004
- Incubation time: 3 weeks
- No. of revisions: 8
- Total time spent in revisions: ~ 3 hours