Relax, then Revise

By Keith Manos


Here are the facts:

 

  • Joseph Heller’s best seller “Catch 22″ was originally titled “Catch 18.”
  • J.D. Salinger took ten years to complete “Catcher in the Rye.”
  • Margaret Mitchell chose “Tomorrow is Another Day” at first for the title of her classic novel “Gone with the Wind.”
  • Leo Tolstoy rewrote “War and Peace” ten times before it was finally accepted for publication.

How did these best-selling authors turn potential rejection into certain publication? What made the difference in the end? The answer is Revision: the cold, analytical, and methodical editing of their manuscripts. They did more than just proofread, they revised.

Steve Linakis’s first novel “In the Spring the War Ended” earned him over $200,000 after, he admits, he accepted recommendations from his agent and editor and performed a detailed revision. “Put it all down first,” Linakis advises. “Then trim it away. You can’t see the whole story until the whole thing is written, then . . . put it away to cool, then see what you’ve got.”

Clearly, the effective revision of a manuscript can lead any writer toward publication, and in today’s market, the best writers are probably the best revisers. Here, therefore, are ten recommendations to producing a more publishable final copy:

Recommendation #1: Expect to Revise.

Although Samuel Taylor Coleridge awoke from a nap with his classic poem “Kubla Kahn” ready to be written, there is a misguided notion that the best writing emerges from the subconscious and should not be tampered with. You have to realize first drafts are rarely final drafts. Even Ernest Hemingway admitted, “I rewrote the first part of ‘A Farewell to Arms’ at least fifty times and the end thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”

Recommendation #2: Get feedback.

Get feedback from a variety of individuals, especially other writers (i.e., a writing group), if you can. Encourage as many responses as possible, even if some may hurt. A librarian, an English teacher, a bookstore manager are other possibilities. Criticism is often more helpful than praise. Keep in mind, however, the comments from legendary editor Maxwell Perkins: “I believe the writer . . . should always be the final judge. I have always held to that position and have sometimes seen books hurt thereby, but at least as often helped. The book belongs to the author.”

Recommendation #3: Learn how other writers revise.

Study the revision strategies of other professional writers when they are revealed in magazine articles, interviews, or books. Editing can be done at any stage of the writing process, although it is especially appropriate after the drafting stage. Anton Chekhov, for example, attacked the beginning and end first. George Orwell looked to replace long words with short ones.

Elmore Leonard examined his characters as if they were auditioning to be in his novel.

Recommendation #4: Take time to revise.

Plan a specific duration of time to revise during your writing. Some writers begin each session examining the work they did the previous day before moving onto the next page or chapter. Others conclude their writing day with 20-30 minutes of editing. “Read and revise, reread and revise,” advises Jacques Berzun. “Keep reading and revising until your text seems adequate to your thought.” Multiple drafts certainly require an investment of time. Indeed, this is time well spent.

Recommendation #5: Have a goal.

Have a specific goal for each revising session – for example, to work on using more figurative language or to cut unnecessary words. Here, you must make the transition from writer to critic. Anyone can be a writer, but the writer who gets published accomplishes what Johann Sebastian Back called “analysis, reflection, much writing, [and] ceaseless correction.”

Recommendation #6: Cut unnecessary words.

Robert Heinlein calls it “the fat;” to William Zinsser, it’s “clutter;” and to Henry Miller, it’s “balderdash . . . slush and drivel.” Whatever you call it, the intent is the same: Be economical with words. Delete unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Condense sentences into phrases and phrases into single words. Zinsser’s advice: “Simplify.”

Recommendation #7: Evaluate the title.

Had Judy Mazel kept the title “Pineapple Diet Book” instead of using “Beverly Hills Diet” she may not have sold over a million copies. Consider what would sell better: “The Art of Courtship” or “The Art of Kissing.” The former sold 17,000 copies; the latter, 60,000. Better titles turn bookstore browsers into book buyers.

Recommendation #8: Learn from rejection.

Ask yourself: What went wrong? Sure, rejection hurts, but use any comments from the editor or another objective study of your manuscript to improve it. Twenty-eight publishers rejected “Silence of the Lambs” before it was published, and even Ernest Hemingway was asked for a revision of “Old Man and the Sea” (which later earned him the Nobel Prize in 1954).

Recommendation #9: Understand grammar rules.

If you’re not skilled in grammar and usage, learn the rules, especially proper punctuation. Commas and dashes, in fact, are the most abused marks. Use the spell check on your computer or word processor to correct misspellings, but if you still remain uncertain, ask an English teacher for assistance.

Recommendation #10: Leave the manuscript alone for a while.

I suggest you put the manuscript aside for at least two weeks, even longer if you can work on other projects. “Do whatever you need to get a fresh viewpoint,” suggests agent and author Oscar Collier. “Let it rest for a few weeks, and then you’ll be ready for editing.” Spend this in-between time reading or researching.

Conclusion:

James Clavell declares, “I’ve always known the art of writing is rewriting.” Tolstoy reveals, “In a writer there must always be two people – the writer and the critic.”

Published writers do not underestimate the importance of revision. They approach this phase with the same enthusiasm they had with the opening sentence, and they realize editors can’t be expected to edit the manuscript for them. Editors, in fact, want polished manuscripts. And if you follow these ten recommendations, like I have for this article, they’ll publish your manuscript, too.

Author Bio:

Keith Manos has published many nonfiction articles in national publications like ATHLETIC MANAGEMENT, SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL, ATHLETIC BUSINESS, WESLEYAN ADVOCATE, LUTHERAN JOURNAL, NEW EARTH REVIEW, REUNIONS, ACCENT ON LIVING, SCHOLASTIC COACH, and SOCCER JOURNAL. His books WRITING SMARTER and ENGLISH TEACHERS MONTH BY MONTH ACTIVITIES KIT can be purchased by calling 1-800-288-4745

Copyright Keith Manos 2002

 

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