How do you know when you’re done revising a poem, essay, or novel?
Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” He obviously wasn’t completely satisfied with the final product.
French poet Paul Valery concurred by saying, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
Such is the case for many works of art, from paintings to novels. In fact, my pastor says the same thing about sermons.
I’m guessing that Leonardo might be the only one discontented with his own results. The rest of the world seems to love them.
Along those lines, how do you feel about the revision process? Not many writers can claim that the first words they slap onto a piece of paper (or computer document) are the same arrangement of words they end up with.
As author Liz Tolsma said, “Sometimes the characters change on me. As I read the story, I learn more about them, and some of the things that I thought I knew about them before I started shift. As the book progresses, I get to know them even better. The most fun part is when they surprise me by doing something completely unexpected. It’s what I love most about writing.”
Thus, writing is also a Journey of Discovery. This is especially true for Pantsers.
Yes, I said Pantsers. If you’re not a novelist, you might not have heard this term. I didn’t make it up. It’s real.
There are two ways to tackle writing a novel: as an Outliner or a Pantser.
Outliners have their entire plot planned out ahead of time, scene by scene.
Pantsers may have a general direction for their story but nothing concrete. As they write, they fly–or write–by the seat of their pants. Thus, Pantsers.
Some novelists are a mixture of both. There are pros and cons to each. The Outliner is organized and sees the whole story at the outset. But he might lack flexibility and miss some fun surprises along the way.
The Pantser has no clear vision but enjoys the ride, and is willing to go where his characters take him. He discovers as he writes, but may end up with inconsistencies and disjointed scenes.
But whether an Outliner or a Pantser, both have to revise. And revise and revise and revise. The revision process fine-tunes the story, smooths everything out, pulls it all together.
Here’s what often happens with my essay and story writing students:
- Rough draft has the basic elements but is too vague. I call this the Bare Bones.
- 2nd draft fleshes it out with more developed scenes/anecdotes, details, stronger word choices, and sensory images. But often to excess. This is the fat and flabby stage.
- 3rd draft tightens it all up–keeps the strongest parts, cuts the fluff and repetition. This is like going to the gym and working out. Building muscle. Cutting fat.
- 4th draft edits make everything sharp with correct Grammar, Usage, Mechanics (punctuation & capitalization), and Spelling (GUMS). This is like showering and putting on your best clothes after the gym workout. You’re ready to be seen in public. You smell good, too.
Of course, this is just the basic process. In reality, it’s a bit different for everyone. The 2nd and 3rd draft steps above could actually involve several drafts each.
1. How many drafts do you do before you get to the final manuscript?
Liz: I will usually have three to four drafts before the final manuscript. The first time is my rough draft. The second time through, I incorporate all my critique partners’ advice. By the third time, I’m looking for the small details like word choice, grammar, and punctuation, and finally, I try to read it aloud for flow.
Barb: I usually do about 4 drafts of a novel. I write the story long hand on a notepad. I type it into the computer and do some editing as I type. I review the previous chapters before I keep going on my story. Then I do a complete edit from start to finish. I will read it out loud and look for research consistencies, too. This is all done before I start edits with my publisher.
2. How much do you enjoy and embrace the process? Or is it something you put up with in order to have a great end-product?
Liz: I LOVE the rough draft process. I’m always surprised by what happens, and that’s fun. By the fourth time through, I’m pretty much done with it. That’s the point when I send it to my publisher. That usually gives me a month or so until the edits come back. By then, I can look at it with fresh eyes, and I’m ready to dive back in.
Barb: I embrace my process. I feel comfortable with how I put my stories together. It’s worked so far!
3. What would you have gained or lost by not going through the revision process and (possibly) multiple drafts?
Liz: If I didn’t go through the revision process, the manuscript would be a mess! I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer, so I don’t do any plotting. When I sit down, I have very little idea of where the story is going. It changes along the way, so on my revisions, I have to go back and make the manuscript work together as a whole.
Barb: Readers will let you know if you have done something wrong, so if you put time into editing, your story will resonate much better with readers. Errors pull readers out of the story. I also like to tweak scenes and make them stronger during revision.
4. At what point do you stop tweaking/editing? Do you consider your work finished or abandoned?
Liz: When I just can’t stand to look at it any more, that’s when I stop. I never read my books after they’re published, because I know I would find things I want to change! As an author and an editor, your work is never truly done! Sometimes, though, you just have to say you’ve done all you can and it is what it is.
Barb: After I go through the steps above, I am confident to send it to my publisher. I also have friends read the manuscript and make comments on things I might have missed. My character attributes need to be consistent and my research needs to be accurate.
Every author is different, but when I’m done editing, I am happy with my manuscript. You can tweak a manuscript forever. I find after several passes at editing, I am happy to let my work go. Otherwise, one grows weary of the characters and plot.
Do you embrace or dread the revision process? Is it an enjoyable process of discovery or a pain?
I’d love to hear from you!