I’m a member of the Berkeley branch of the California Writers Club. They usually have a monthly meeting that includes a speaker who presents something writing related. Yesterday, Laurel Yourke, author of Beyond the First Draft: Deep Novel Revision, gave a 45 minute overview of recommendations she offers to poetry and fiction writers on how to move beyond surface revision (changing around word choice: below instead of under) to what she calls deep revision (making conscious, painful choices that sometimes lead to cutting our favorite passages). She believes that if there isn’t some pain, then we aren’t going far enough in our analysis of what needs to remain and what needs to flee.
Yourke recommends thinking of revision as an opportunity to find our own vision. During this process, we can get a deeper look at what we’re wanting to get across either in a poem or fiction (short story or novel). However, it’s usually necessary to complete a first draft before we can find the essence of what we’re trying to communicate. She believes this is the most rewarding part of the writing process, and it won’t happen with just surface revision strategies.
By being willing to cut areas that aren’t contributing to what we’re hoping to express, we begin to see the bare bones of what we’ll want to pursue. It’s only by asking and answering questions (in fiction, especially), like does this scene change the main character(s) in some minimally significant way, that we have a better grasp of what needs to be cut. Either the scene needs to be revised or else eliminated.
She also believes that everything in our narratives must point towards the theme. Details and descriptions that don’t will have to go because they’re obscuring the main focus of our story. However, this kind of deep revision depends on me knowing what my themes are. What’s the main thing I’m trying to get across in this draft? What am I’m trying to do here? What is unique about this poem/novel/short story that makes it special only to me? When I know that, I can start revising with my eye on my reader.
One of her most important observations was to revise with our ideal reader in mind. She believes our audience is the most important thing to think about when revising. How should I go about altering my material successfully for these particular readers? She recommends finding our own process and respecting it since no two writers revise in the same way. Otherwise, we’ll be trapped in someone else’s method.
I also resonated with her reminding us that our readers like to make their own discoveries when reading our poems/stories. Am I telling something that readers can infer for themselves? If so, resist the urge so that our writing can be a source of inspiration for them. Try to write only what I can say and aim for fresh language in which to do it. Donald Mass, a major New York agent and writing coach, recommends thinking of eleven ways of saying something and throw out the first ten.
While determining what we want to say, we need to use every technique at our disposal to express it the only way we can. It’s hard work, but that’s when we’ll realize what’s lurking under the surface of the early drafts we’ve written. I believe that’s when deep revision begins to revise us as writers as well.