Teaching Ways to Revise: Necessary Words

In my experience both as a writer and as a writer who reads, the writer has a story in their head that is quite vivid. A less experienced writer often does not yet have the tools to fully bring the story fully to life on the page, to express and translate all the vivid emotion and imagery and idea so that another person can experience some measure of what the writer feels for the story.

So, two things:


Thing One:

I reckon the reader will never read exactly the story the writer has in mind because the reader brings their own experiences, thoughts, and reactions to the material. In other words, I maintain that it is impossible for any reader to read exactly the book the writer is doing their best to tell. That’s a topic for another post.

Why I make the point is to remind writers that their goal is to bring the story, the ideas, the emotions (whatever element matters most to the writer) to the reader in the strongest way possible, in a way that to the best of their ability and the limits of language makes a connection between the text and the reader.

Techniques that help create and strengthen that bridge between the writer’s construct which lives in the head of the writer and the reader’s interaction with the story are an important aspect of writing craft.

Thing Two:

Most often the biggest problem I see with manuscripts is that the writer has an interesting story to tell but the word choice, pacing, and deployment of plot and details hamper the story. They get in the way of the story rather than bringing the story into focus.

In my opinion, revision is the hardest part of the process to learn and to teach.

The process of learning to find the right words in the right order is so complex that, yes, I still struggle with it all the time. I am, I hope, still getting more proficient, getting better, learning from my mistakes — because I still make mistakes. Every novel I’ve published so far has mistakes in it that I haven’t been able to recognize until after it has been published and sometimes not for several years when I have left it far enough behind that I can finally get a decent sense of perspective about it.

A Way To Revise: Thinking About Necessary Words

The key to an effective scene is to use the words you need, in the order you need them in. This is a truism that is far easier to say than to do.

Probably your early draft uses words you don’t need, or lacks some words you do need. The more words you use which you don’t need, the more those unneeded words diffuse the intensity of the experience of the words and story. Additionally, in some places it may be the story could use intensifiers to highlight and clarify the emotion and emotion. That lack at certain crucial spots makes it harder for the reader to connect.

So how do you figure out which words you need and which are unnecessary?

There are many strategies for doing this. Mine is AN answer, not THE answer.

Let me repeat that. This is a way to think about revising. It is not the only way, the best way, or anything except one possible way out of many.

Here are some ways to think about the words.

1.    What is this scene about? What does the scene do both as a discrete scene and in the context of the entire story? If necessary, you can outline a scene or do a bullet points breakdown of what must be in the scene in order for the scene to have the impact you want it to have.
2.    Once you have figured out what is absolutely necessary, carefully consider every word and sentence and paragraph you use, every detail mentioned, every aside, thought, comment, and action.
3.    Identify which are necessary to allow the scene to do its rightful work.
4.    Beware of asides and tangents that are important to you, the writer, and which may contain information that you, the writer, know and which is important for you to know but which is not necessary for the reader to know. Cut those.
5.    Especially at the beginning of a novel, the reader has to process every piece of information you give her. Every piece. Those elements of the story which are familiar are easier to process. Those elements of story which are presented in ways that are familiar are easier to process. Elements of the story which are unfamiliar–and this can include literary devices, unfamiliar settings and words, each new character not to mention any necessary backstory–slow down and/or weigh down the reader’s intake and can cause the pacing to seem slow or the material to seem difficult. This is not a good or bad thing depending on the type of story you’re writing; some stories are meant to be dense and chewy. Just be sure your text fits the kind of story and pacing you are aiming for.
6.    The flip side of too much information is too little. Is there enough context? Are the characters faceless, personality-less stick figures who do nothing but say dialogue and take actions that have no emotional or situational context? Context is part of what allows the reader to identify with the story, the setting, the characters, the plot.
7.    Seek the balance: The reader needs to know enough to get involved and to figure out the basic context of the story but not so much that she bogs down or gets confused or overwhelmed by information dump or overload or just plain ordinary digression and unnecessary details (see 4 above).

Take a scene or a first chapter or several scenes and break them down in this way, then see what you have left (or what you need to add).

There’s far more to revision than this, obviously, but this is one way to start.

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