20 To See Again
The art of revision
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be.
In French, “revision” means to see again, and that is exactly what we hope to do with every article after it has been completed, but before it has been submitted to an editor.
We aim to take a fresh, critical perspective on the piece — to tighten it, reorganize, fill in weak spots and catch anything that might be missing.
This is editing, as opposed to proofreading, although we will be going over word by word, line by line, to make sure we have spelled everything correctly — especially names, titles, proper nouns, etc.
This might be even more challenging than your original writing, because everything you have written is some precious little gem to you, your baby. But as Stephen King wrote in “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
When and how to revise is personal to each writer, and the process may change over time and with more experiences.
Gaming journalist Jason Schreier said he likes to edit as he goes, polishing his material on the page as he goes, instead of just first getting a full draft done, but he admits it may not work for everyone.
“I think people should just do what works best for them because some people can just get fixated on a single sentence and that can be a really bad technique if you are one of those types of people,” he said.
Melissa Hoppert acknowledges she is one of those people. When she started in journalism, Hoppert was a copy editor, which prompted her to tweak her writing as she went with a copy editor’s eye.
As she got more comfortable writing, she worked longer and longer before starting to revise.
“I try to get about a third of the way through before I start editing,” she said. “Or when I get stuck, I reread and tweak it, and keep going. I basically edit in thirds and at the end, I reread it one more time and then I revise.”
Many writers believe revision requires a “cooling off” period, which means my students’ common practice of writing up until the moment something is due is rarely the best approach. Instead, give yourself an artificial deadline so you can put it aside and come back with fresh eyes.
“In a daily newspaper situation that break may be again is just get up and go walk around the building or go grab a cup of coffee or whatever,” Misti Crane said. “Then come back, print it out and review it. I know that that seems sort of old-fashioned but there is something about printing out what you have written and taking a pen and making notes as you go through, rather than getting sucked back into rewriting while you are at your desk with the computer, that I have found beneficial.”
Among the changes Crane is looking to make — cutting, cutting and more cutting. That includes cutting out words that do not contribute to the real meaning of the story and entire paragraphs that may seem redundant or unnecessary.
“It may mean getting rid of some things you really enjoyed experiencing, but you have to be in the service of your reader rather than in the service of yourself as a writer,” she said.
Some questions to ask amid the macro view of revision:
- Are you pulled in by the lede?
- Can you find the nut graph?
- Does the nut graph hold up in the body?
- Is your article balanced?
- Do you smoothly transition throughout the body?
- Do you have enough sources? Too many?
- Are the quotes advancing the story or should you paraphrase more?
- Are you showing or telling?
- Is your conclusion ending with a sigh or is it just flopping?
- How is your sentence variety? Is it keeping readers engaged or lulling them to sleep?
In this exercise, you truly are the article’s first reader, so notice if there are spots you skip over, or you simply want to stop reading. If you are bored, the reader will be, too.
Look for places you are stumbling or it’s confusing. It helps often to read out loud since you won’t be able to skip over any words or phrases like you can with silent reading. If it does not sound right to your ear, that’s an area to mark for rewriting.
“Some of the worst moments are when you have a brilliant quote, but you just can’t fit it into the story and you cut it out,” Alison Lukan of The Athletic said. “Or you have a brilliant little piece but it really adds nothing to the story.
Zack Meisel of The Athletic admits that as a younger writer he was “over-the-top wordy.” He later realized that to serve the reader he needed to put down the thesaurus and write what feels natural.
“It’s such a turn-off to have these big words that nobody knows what they mean or just unnecessary or too much describing and you’re not actually getting to the root of what’s happening,” he said. “I think you just learn over time, you just want to avoid that because it’s secondary to what you’re actually writing about.
“Your writing is supposed to make the story easier to read, it’s supposed to make the story come to life but it’s not supposed to overshadow a story. What is most important is still what you’re actually writing about, not the words necessarily that you’re using to describe what happened.”
Mitch Hooper of (614) Magazine said he is helped in revision by reminding himself that his article does not actually represent him, but instead represents the subject.
“At a certain point, the story is not about you even though you were a part of the process of putting the story together,” he said. “You have to understand who your story is for; it’s not for you it’s for the audience, it’s for the subjects, it’s for the people involved in this stuff. You have to turn off how much you love your own stories. You have to fall on your own sword, you’re not perfect.”
In the micro view, start looking at your grammar and word choices.
- Are you ending sentences with prepositions?
- Is your style consistent throughout?
- Are you using enough clichés to sink a battleship?
- Are you overusing adjectives and adverbs?
- Are you properly using the language relevant to this publication or audience?
- How are your tenses and agreements with pronouns?
- Are you using proper punctuation (and avoiding exclamation points!)?
Read Aloud Time with Lucas Sullivan
“I am sure we all look foolish those of us who do this, but I read my articles out loud because when you force yourself to read it out loud you realize shortcuts your brain was making as well as actual punctuation.”