Why (Good) Writers Revise

Beginning writers tend to get hung up in plotting their stories and forget that what makes a good story is good writing.

People are often amazed when I tell them that I don’t have any problem coming up with story ideas. The problem is in the execution. Execution involves more than getting the story down on paper, although that’s where most stories begin. Execution takes time and effort. The work of execution is revision.

What happens when writers revise their stories? It’s not a great mystery, but if you’re not a writer you may not be aware of the extent to which revision is a critically necessary part of the process. If a story idea is ever to become a piece of writing worthy of being shared with others, it happens during revision.

When editing their stories writers change words, phrases, redo sentences and occasionally change the entire structure of the story. Instead of words that were okay when writing the first draft, revisioning involves finding words that are more precise, that tell better who, what, where, why, when and how. They look to replace clichés or lame phrasing with phrases that make the reader look twice, see deeper, or just open their eyes.

Revision also involves redoing sentences and paragraphs. Good writing requires a variety of sentences formats. Strings of short sentences can become tedious; stringing too many long sentences together risks losing the reader. Variety is a good-writing spice.

Sometimes the entire story needs restructuring, as when the writer becomes aware that the flow of the story is jerky herky or she has created a problem with timing or pacing. Minor restructuring can involve moving one scene in front of another or altering the flow of events in an existing scene. Major restructuring can mean shifting chapters or parts of chapters, or starting the story at what once was the beginning of the middle of an earlier draft. Writers don’t undertake major revisions lightly. They can tie one down for months if not longer.

Many writers spend years sculpting their ideas into statues so conscious are they that the writing is the story, that the style is the content.

That used to be less true in genre fiction than it is today, but the writing standards for mysteries and thrillers, sci-fi and fantasy, horror and even romance have been elevated by the reading public, which on the whole is more sophisticated than it was a couple of generations ago. Space cowboys don’t cut it any more and hardboiled detectives who speak in monosyllables are passe except perhaps in parodies.

The right word, an original phrase, unusual pacing, a plot tensioned by the careful unfolding of the story––these are some of the elements of good writing.

An original story idea, of course, doesn’t hurt, but it rarely carries the day. Happy revising.

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