How (the Hell) Do I Revise my Story?

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You had that moment: Inspiration smacked you, you pounded those keys like a mad(wo)man, took a glance over those twelve pages and admired the hell out of how goddamn glorious of an artist you are…and then you workshopped the thing and everyone was all “I just, like, don’t really care about the narrator,” “Why are you switching the tenses around?” “Should you really be doing a second-person POV?” “Is she having sex with a warthog on page seven or is that just a dream or me not reading this right?”

Before you get all diva and defensive, you should probably realize that A.) You should stop being a people-pleaser. Not everyone’s gonna love you and your work, and B.) No Pulitzer Board is about to hit you up over that first draft.

And I’ll admit it: When I was taking my fiction workshop as an undergrad student, I had zero idea what I was doing when revising my piece. And this is why, when I revised, I didn’t really, well, revise. Rather, I cut out an extra word here, erased an embarrassing misuse of “their” there, and pretty much called it a day/revised story. It was like I had my story-writing beer goggles on; I was incapable of sobering up and realizing that some of my shit just wasn’t so hot.

And I’ll also admit that, now, as an MFA student, I still find myself approaching the moment of revision and thinking ‘Shit, this is a frickin skill.’ And, so, also being a composition teacher, I should probably follow my own advice I give to my students: One being, your first version is gonna be a word-vommity vom-mess of crap through which you must sift to find some gems; the other being that you should try compiling a game-plan checklist of what to do and what to ask yourself when beautifying and protein-shake-strengthening your work.

Not in the mood to be all organized and listy? I got you:

  • Let that shit sit: Think of this step as a temporary conscious uncoupling. You’re simply too close to the piece after having just written it. Close that laptop, grab a drink, perhaps engage in practicing some of those social skills, and wait to rekindle the flame later.
  • Print that shit out: NO, I’m not advocating for the deterioration of the planet via hundreds of papers of sad, tossed versions. Use some recycled paper and see your story on a different medium. Reading a paper copy can encourage you to read more slowly and see your words differently than you would on a computer. Not sold? Then you can stay unsold, or just, ya know, try it.
  • Don’t focus on grammar and typos: You’re gonna revise anyway, so why waste the time when you’re probably gonna be deleting anyway?
  • Read as a reader: But you’re the writer, right? But you’re also presumably intelligent and read other authors’ work, so try reading your own writing like you would theirs. Ask yourself: ‘Why do I like this?’ ‘What’s keeping me interested?’ ‘What feels exciting?’ ‘What’s pushing me to turn the page?’ If you can’t answer these questions, then—uh-oh—other readers probably won’t be able to either.
  • Identify the main idea: and then look to the rest of the story. Do the scenes support the central conflict? What’s the emotional center? What’s even happening? What’s even exciting? What even matters? (Existential, I know.)
  • Create a reverse outline of your story: Dear lord, I’m sounding like a comp teacher again, but, for real, reverse-outlining is a godsend. Organize these events as a reader, basing the events off of what’s actually happening on the page, not what’s happening in your Well-I-originally-wrote-that-Paola-was-pregnant-and-then-I-erased-that-part-but-they’ll-probably-still-get-it brain.
  • Cuddle up and spend some quality time with your main character: What do they want? How do they get/try to get what they want? What kinds of decisions do they have to make? What are the consequences of these decisions? How do they change from the beginning of the story to the end? Do they change at all? How much are they acting? Speaking? What do they look like? Do these details contribute to communicating who they are? If you feel like you’re interrogating your character, they’ll get over it; but you might not if your audience can’t connect with your character later.
  • Transport yourself to the story’s environment: Have you specified where your story is or when it is? What kind of mood does this place evoke? What details support this sense? Does the setting motivate your character(s) to act? Should it? Is not writing enough about setting proving to be a missed opportunity?
  • Evaluate the language: Are you painting that canvas with sensory, specific details? Is the language figurative? Do you use metaphors, personification, symbolism, etc. etc.? Do these elements support the tone of the piece and/or contribute to the theme?
  • REVISE!: Once you’ve identified what’s working, expand on that. Likewise, once you’ve spotted what’s proving a bit lackluster, cut that shit out. Even if the writing is beautiful and poetic and demonstrative of your flowery chops, if it doesn’t contribute to your story, then stop contributing to the support of its existence…at least for this story’s sake. If you’re really feeling attached to a section that’s oh-so-perfect but doesn’t play oh-so-nicely with the others, cut and paste it into a Google Doc to use later, and/or admire later when you’re feeling like a crap-o writer/human (It’s cool. Those days exist for us all).
  • REPEAT!: Yo, even that draft #2 isn’t assured to be so perfecto. Get some more eyes on it, ask the owners of these eyes the same questions you asked yourself when you revised the last time, take their feedback into consideration, and use it (or don’t—it’s your work).

Want a final step?: Send.that.shit.out. Because, after all that time writing and (re)writing and (re)writing, you might just feel ready to share your words with the world beyond your computer, workshop peers, S.O., mom or dad or dog. So, let me revise my previous statement and repeat: Send.that.shit.out (please).

Leslie Jernegan is a fiction writer in Virginia Tech’s MFA program. Outside of her writerly pursuits, she travels, practica su español, plays in the great outdoors, drinks good beers with good(ish)—but really great—people, and talks about her love for her Wisco home.


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