Director’s Corner: Gaining Distance to Revise

Jeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.

You don’t care about my protagonist? You don’t find my plot to be a page-turning masterwork of suspense? You think my sentences are awkward and my point of view inconsistent? Writers are often quite surprised by the feedback they receive on manuscripts. They are so close to the work they’ve created that they can’t experience it the way a reader experiences it. When they look at their manuscript, they don’t actually see the words on the page; they see the images in their head that inspired those words. Unfortunately, when readers read the work, they see only the words and are left to form their own images, which are often radically different than the author’s–or just murky or even blank. In working with many writers over the years, I’ve discovered that very few of them know how to revise, and even fewer are willing to put major time and attention into revising. Generally speaking, you should be putting at least as much time into revision as you put into the draft, probably much more.

Say you are willing to revise. How do you start? Getting feedback is usually a good first step. Learning how readers experienced your work will help to reveal how your vision of the work differs from the words you actually wrote on the page.

But to figure out exactly what changes to make, and to know whether those changes will solve the problems, you need to take the next step. You need to try to see your work with new eyes, as a reader sees it. Revision is literally re-vision: seeing your work anew. You need to see the actual words written on the page and experience them the way a reader might, rather than having them draw you back into your vision of the story, which is not what is written on the page.

To accomplish this difficult task, you need to gain distance from your manuscript. The easiest type of distance to gain is distance in time. Put the manuscript in a drawer, pull it out in a month, and you will probably notice things about it that you never noticed before.

Typeface and medium are other ways to gain distance. You’ve written the whole piece in a particular typeface, and you’ve gotten used to it. You’re comfortable seeing the words this way. They look right to you. Well, now is the time to make your words like strange and different; it’s time to be uncomfortable with them. Change the typeface on the piece and print it out. Printing out is critical. The computer screen hides a mountain of writing weaknesses. Things look neat and nice on the screen. Print it out, and now you not only have to face your work in a different typeface, but in a different medium. Paper reveals weak writing. Paper reveals story problems. If you are open to seeing what is there, if you are looking at your work anew, you will discover many areas that can be strengthened. Look for them, seek them out, don’t excuse them, and don’t get sucked back into your original vision, and you will find many ways to improve your piece. Make notes all over your paper copy.

Another invaluable way to gain distance involves switching to yet another medium. Rather than viewing your work on the screen or reading it on paper, hear your work. Read it aloud, or have someone else read it aloud to you. Listen to the words, the sentences, the rhythm. This will immediately reveal an abundance of problems: repeated words, repetitive sentence structure, inconsistencies in voice, unrealistic or inappropriate dialogue, excessive exposition, weak description, and more.

If you are successful at gaining distance, weaknesses will jump out at you. Why did I think this character was sympathetic? How did I ever believe this scene was suspenseful? This sentence is horribly awkward! Once the problems are clear, half the work is done. Now all you have to do is find solutions. Which is a topic for another day.

So gaining distance from your manuscript is a critical part of revision. One note of caution, though. If you’re not careful, distance can lead to laziness. This happens to me sometimes. I read a paragraph, or a sentence, and I don’t know why it’s there. I have gained sufficient distance that I don’t remember the impulse that made me write the passage. After some thought, I decide I must have had a good reason for putting it there; I must have understood the needs of the scene better when I wrote it than I do now. I tell myself that, and I tell myself to leave it and move on. Sometimes I actually do move on, lazy author that I am. Yet if I force myself to linger, to try to figure out the “good reason” for putting it there, I eventually realize what that reason was: I didn’t know any better. The passage was basically a placeholder, filling that spot with my best guess of what needed to go there. Yet it was only a guess, the guess of someone who hadn’t written the rest of the manuscript and didn’t know exactly what needed to be set up or what was coming. Then I realize that this passage is not the best possible thing to put in this place, that it could be better, much better, if only I am willing to realize that, and to revise.

Gaining distance from a manuscript is key to revision, but make sure you don’t use that distance as an alibi to excuse weaknesses. Instead, it should be a tool to provide new perspective and insight, and to point the way toward improvements that will strengthen the work.

To all of you out there revising, alternating between the elation of solving a problem and the despair of finding you’ve created ten new problems for yourself, keep the faith, and know that revision is the path toward improving the work. Remember that you have something worthwhile to say, and it will only get said if you finish the manuscript. You have created this story, something special and unique. It deserves to become the best you can make it, and with revision, it can reach its full potential and deliver the power and emotion that you envisioned.

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