5 Tips for Revision

The good folks at the Chicago Writers Conference asked me to contribute some tips for a post on their blog. Here they are.

Of course I wrote long (I needed an editor!). So in addition to the two tips featured in that post, here are three that didn't make the cut — but which I find myself sharing with writers time and time again:

Reverse-outline. Writers are often asked whether they begin with an outline or simply sit down and start writing. Whichever camp you fall in, you might consider creating an outline after you’ve finished a draft. This technique is known as reverse outlining, and it’s a terrific way to make a relatively impartial assessment of your work. Aaron Hamburger, a fiction writer, described the technique here. The gist: Analyze your manuscript scene by scene or paragraph by paragraph. Keep a tally of how much space you’ve devoted to each scene, each character, each pivotal moment in the action, then step back and ask whether the numbers make sense. As Hamburger writes, “Reducing a process as intuitive and sometimes emotional as writing to the objectivity of solving a mathematical equation isn’t always helpful or desirable.” But if you’re having problems with pacing, or are concerned your writing is baggy but are agonizing over where to cut, a reverse outline can help you home in on trouble spots.

Ax the adverbs. In your electronic document, search for all the words ending in “-ly.” Where those are paired with verbs, cut them in favor of strengthening the verbs. For example: You could write that a character walked quickly. But it’s tighter, and more interesting, to turn that verb-adverb phrase into a single word: she sped, she hurried, she scrambled, she scurried. Even better, choose a verb that accurately captures the mood of the moment. Sped is a somewhat neutral way of saying someone moved quickly; scrambled evokes awkwardness or disarray. Play with several possibilities and you’ll soon hit on the right one. Whatever you choose, it will probably be an improvement over that wordy, clunky verb-adverb construction.

Cut your last lines. I once listened to a director’s commentary on a DVD in which the director said the key to trimming the flab from his film was to cut the last line of dialogue from almost every scene. The technique helped shave several minutes off the film and made the overall project feel much more polished and tight. The trick works well in prose, too. Often, writers overexplain — they make a point, then make it again in another sentence, using slightly different language, to ensure the reader gets it. Or, they give a character a line of dialogue, then repeat or elaborate on that line with additional narration. The result: blowsy, didactic, redundant sentences. Try going through your manuscript and cutting the last line from every scene or passage of dialogue. Don’t hesitate, just do it. Have you sacrificed clarity? Emotional impact? If not, then well done: You’ve gotten us that much closer to the end.