How to Revise Your Story Like a Pro

by David Safford | 26 comments

It’s suddenly 2018. Have you set an awesome writing goal for yourself this year?

I have, and I’m incredibly excited about it!

How to Revise Your Story Like a Pro

For some of us, that goal involves writing something brand new.

But for most of us, our 2018 writing goals probably involve rewriting a work in progress. It’s a draft, roughly complete or unfinished, that never seems to be “done,” no matter how much we tinker with it.

There’s a reason we get stuck in these perpetual works in progress. And if we don’t figure out how to overcome it, we might find ourselves in the same sticky mess 365 days from now.

The Myth of Revision

In secondary school, we are taught the writing process: Plan, Draft, Revise, Proofread, Publish.

As a secondary teacher, I face the most resistance from my students in that third step: Revision.

The first reason why is that we simply don’t want to do it. Revision isn’t nearly as enjoyable as creation, or as easy as correcting surface errors. Plus, it can be overwhelming, leaving us wondering if we even know how to revise a story.

But the second reason why we resist is the word itself, “Revision.” It's a misleading term. It doesn’t really exist.

What we really have to do when we revise is rewrite.

And no one wants to rewrite, because rewriting is painful.

Demo Day

To properly revise, we have to identify that our existing creation is deeply flawed.

And while it may have been beautiful once before, it is negatively affecting the story around it.

Much like the Demo Day scenes in our favorite HGTV shows, we can’t simply work around the flaws. They're affect everything else too directly, and have to be taken out with a sledgehammer.

Yet we don’t want to do it. We feel like we’re hurting the ones we love, or “our babies.”

Revision can literally feel like betrayal and death, because we have to accept that our creation, something that we have lovingly cultivated, must be destroyed.

Is it possible to keep parts of our old creation and rebuild around it?

Yes, but it's surprising (and depressing) how seldom this works. Odds are, if a chapter, paragraph, or sentence isn’t working, it has to go.

Ouch.

Saving Our “Children”

Here’s the good news: Our creations don’t literally have to die.

Instead, they should get added to a “storage” document. When I was writing my novel, The Bean of Life, I was swinging my editorial sledgehammer like Chip and Joanna after drinking a case of Red Bull (my wife watches a lot of Fixer Upper).

Yet every one of my beautiful creations, my little narrative children, was carefully cut and pasted into my “TBoL Storage” document. For each stored bit, I labeled it with a bookmarked heading so I could easily find it if needed.

And you know what? I used it. There were many times I went back into that document and rescued a sentence or phrase that still had a role to play in the story.

But to be honest, I don’t remember 95% of those bits in that storage document (which is 50,000 words long). I’ve forgotten them, mostly because they were ultimately forgettable.

So here's a tip for how to revise your story: do yourself the loving favor of protecting your creations. Never hit the “Delete” button (unless it’s just a typo). Always cut-and-paste your creations into storage, where they will be safe.

Enlightened Rewriting

To truly revise our work in progress and bring it to a state of “done,” we must rewrite it — often from a blank page one.

This doesn’t sound fun, and it will certainly be a lot of work.

But this new creation won’t feel anything like the first time. A first draft is like hacking our way through dense, dangerous jungle. This draft will be like climbing the stairs of an ancient temple where an enlightened monk awaits us at the top.

Here’s why you need to rewrite on a blank page: A crowded page is a prison; a blank page is freedom.

Trying to work within the confines of our old ideas and rigid prose does not provide the creation freedom that we need.

We need space. We need opportunity.

Maybe a blank page is something you find intimidating. No problem. Keep an important piece of description, or a line of dialogue, to spark your creativity. Give yourself a launch pad.

But remove the shackles of yesterday’s ideas.

It’s a new year, a time for new ideas. And it's time for a major breakthrough on that perpetual work in progress.

Rewrite With Confidence!

Every old draft is a massive lesson that teaches us about our stories. The fact that we didn’t “get it right” doesn’t make us failures — it makes us artists. Art is failure of a very persistent nature. Some of the best pieces of art in the world were regarded as failures by their creators and contemporaries, and now are revered and copied.

So (re)write this year with confidence!

If your goal is to build the habits and mindset of a successful storyteller, this is a crucial step to take. We have to be able to put old ideas aside, learn from them, and take risky steps forward. Otherwise we will be stuck in a prison of the past, forever fearing the touch of the creative sledgehammer and its wonderful power.

What do you think? Can you revise, even on a crowded page, filled with old ideas that might not be working? Or do you prefer the freedom of an empty page of unlimited possibility?

What steps do you take to revise your stories? Let the community know in the comments!

PRACTICE

Take a section of a work in progress that you want to “finish” in 2018, or at least take to the next level. Read a paragraph or page of it that you would like to revise. Then, for fifteen minutes, completely rewrite it without looking at it once.

Share your revision in the comments. Then, add a thought on how the experience felt for you. Was it empowering? Terrifying? Did it give you ideas for future revision of your WIP? No matter how it goes, have fun exploring an old idea with new freedom!

And if you share, remember to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

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You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.

26 Comments

  1. Danny

    tell v you something about new year and I am keep writing my Story is my song and about my Girlfriend Her Name is Katelyn I date with her in seven years since now I am Keep my blog how to make a newspaper Article tell me about it or tell me Photography pleases

    Reply
  2. Sonya Ramsey

    I often find myself starting over with my stories I am old school I loved to touch paper and the red ink pen (retired educator) I feel wonderful when I start over fresh and love when I get stuck that I can reflect back to some old notes I saved to fill in the hard spots with the book I’m writing and most of the time reflecting back or starting over be on point for me.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Aren’t old notes the best? I love the feel of the old paper in my hands… like time travel, in a way. I wonder if rewriting on a blank page is easier for pen-and-paper authors like you. Great thought!

  3. Susi

    I just joined Disqus so I could finally comment on all your FANTASTIC articles and to thank you for the 10 book! This article really hit home because it is exactly what I started doing ……yesterday! How did you know? Anyway, writing on the blank page, the scenes I’m not happy with, works for me, I’ve found. Thanks so, so much again!

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      *blushes* You just made my day! Thanks for the encouraging words! I just took a break from my “10 Reasons” rewrites to check on comments and found your kind thoughts. Thanks for being so supportive!

  4. David H. Safford

    I get it, I really do. I’m doing it right now, in fact. But it’s worth it when you pull that refined gold out of the furnace. Don’t give up!

    Reply
    • TerriblyTerrific

      Thank you, my friend! I won’t give up!

  5. Jon Carl Lewis

    Thanks, I know I have to start at the beginning and rewrite the opening to my story, but it seems so daunting!

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      I know…. I’m dreading rewriting the first chapter of my novel. First chapters are hell, anyway!

  6. Yumna Mahmood

    re-writing is really like a wiper wipes out dew drops from your front screen.
    Be brave friends
    “so stick to the fight with your hardest hi t
    It’s when things seems worst that you must not quit”
    that’s what keeps me get going.

    Reply
  7. JP

    I don’t know about anyone else; but, as I write my scenes I know their going to rewritten. I usually begin my writing each day by re-reading what I wrote during the previous session, just to get the feel of things. My reaction normally is, “Did I really write that crap?” Even the witty dialogue, and “beautiful” prose needs major improvements. Of course, I leave it all be until the draft is done. Revision to me is not daunting. But, it is painful

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      “Did I really write that crap?” <— Amen, amen, amen!

  8. Sarina Langer

    This comes at a perfect time as I’m about to start the second round of edits on my next book. Will pin this so I can come back to it!

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Good luck! Hang in there and endure!

    • Sarina Langer

      ALWAYS *pours another tea*

  9. LilianGardner

    I’m lazy to begin revision, but if I leave my story aside for over two weeks, once i start re-reading it, it seems as if some one else wrote the story. I become engrossed and revise with enthusiasm. Tomorrow, Monday, I will begin revision of my nove lfor the third time. I hope to publish it some day, but only after it is edited by a pro.

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Time is amazing when it comes to revision. I always suggest giving yourself about a week of time and space for every 5,000 words. Otherwise, we’re blind to our writing’s needs. Great comment!

    • LilianGardner

      Thanks David, giving time and space for every 5,000 words is sound advice.

  10. Sefton

    I really love cutting things out of my stories. I love those 100-word story challenges and trimming prose down to its absolute minimum. My first drafts are more like 100,000 word prose outlines which need real butchering to get them into any kind of decent shape. I actually enjoy it but I have to be strict with myself not to start tinkering with sentences before I’ve cut out the pointless drivel, favourite but terrible scenes, extraneous characters etc.

    Reply
    • Irene Joseph

      I enjoy writing to a limited word count too! I’ve just managed to cut a 2479 word story down to its 1700 max. I love the buzz and the sense of achievement. I’ve just discovered the AD HOC website based in Bath England where you can submit 150word stories every Wednesday!

    • David H. Safford

      This is so true. Whenever I draft a contest entry (usually 1,500 word limit), I’m always 600-700 words over. And yet, when I submit the final, I can’t even remember all the stuff that got cut. It’s an amazing (yet still painful) process.

  11. Irene Joseph

    I will try the blank page re-write, but right now it’s not really sitting with me. I like to see what I’ve already crafted and work from there moulding it into something better. But I shall give it a go!

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      You can, and I actually mentioned that in the conclusion. Perhaps put the best or most important parts of your previous draft at the top of a page, and let that launch you into the next revision. Good luck!

    • David H. Safford

      I knew I was taking a risk with the Demo Day reference, but it works – plus it’s always so fun to watch, so hopefully we can see it as a positive thing in our writing.

  12. Yumna Mahmood

    I had written half of my story before I got this lesson and after getting this lesson I re-wrote it and I really am thankful to GOD and HIS fellow man who asked me to revise my story. Seriously I wouldn’t have discovered major flaws in my text but thank god I revised it. It is a hard work but,
    “YOU MUST NOT QUIT”

    Reply

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