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  • Writer's picturePatti Callahan Henry

Ask Us Anything About Writing: “Do you have any advice about revising?”

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Monthly Column: "Ask Us Anything About Writing" with three acclaimed New York Times bestselling Authors : Ariel Lawhon, J.T. Ellison, and Patti Callahan Henry.

I discuss the craft of writing with my author friends J. T. Ellison and Ariel Lawhon all the time, and we thought we'd bring some of these conversations to you. We've been soliciting questions from our readers and this month’s topic is a great one.

“Do you have any advice about revising?”

From Author Ariel Lawhon—"Two Tricks that Save My Sanity."

Like both JT and Patti, I agree that revision is where the magic happens. I rarely enjoy the drafting process, but I LOVE the revision process and I have two tricks that save my sanity:

First, I edit standing up.

I keep one wall in my office blank and once I have a draft, I print it out one chapter at a time and tape the pages to the wall. Then I begin to read it out loud. Something about seeing my words at eye level and hearing them read aloud enables me to not only notice typos and poor word choice, but it helps me find my voice and keep it consistent throughout.

Second, once the book is done and I’ve taped the pages to wall, read them aloud, and marked them up with red ink, I identify the weakest scene in every chapter.

My goal is then to make it the strongest scene. Then I repeat the process over and over until I can no longer identify a weak scene or a weak chapter. Only then do I feel confident sending the book on to my agent and editor.

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From Author J.T. Ellison—"Change the Font"

Revision is truly the art of writing.

It’s a learned skill, and not an easy one. Editing your own work, finding ways to enhance the prose, stripping away the unnecessary, tightening, removing throat clearing words like that and just, fixing timelines, all are necessary components of revision, and what makes a manuscript into a novel.

But if you’re talking about HOW to revise, my favorite trick is to change the font and line spacing of the manuscript.

This shocks my brain into a new place where I can see all sorts of typos, lines out of sequence, repeat words, and other little annoyances.

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From Author Patti Callahan Henry—"Self-editing Secret: Listen Carefully"

Look what I found – can you believe it?

For historical fiction writers like me, it’s tempting to use all of my research in the novel I’m writing. All. Of. It. Because it’s so interesting, so absolutely fascinating! As an author, every little nugget thrills me, and I feel compelled to tell my readers all about it.

Since the days of books-on-tape (which I still say sometimes), I have always loved finding stories on audio. So here at Career Authors, I talk about using audio to fine-tune our stories before they come out! When I wrote Wild Swan (an audible original) it changed the way I edited SURVIVING SAVANNAH.

But just like my son’s fourth grade handmade ceramic plate of French fries is a prized possession and on display in my home, no one else really wants to see everything that thrills me.

So how do we decide what to include?

When I approach a new subject for the first time (especially real people I have written about like Joy Davidman in Becoming Mrs. Lewis and Florence Nightingale in Wild Swan, or a true-life event like the sinking of the Steamship Pulaski in Surviving Savannah), I consider research to be the skeleton of my story. The bones must be strong. It must hold the entire body of the narrative the same way our skeleton holds us. If something is off center or broken, the story limps or can’t use its right arm.

Does this detail serve the story?

Don’t ask if it serves you or makes you look smart or proves you’re a meticulous researcher who knows their subject. What matters in your story? If you include details that do not serve the story, they’ve got to go. Brutal, but true. I know, you took six hours trying to find out how the chef cooked lamb for the dinner party in 1927 on a rainy day, but does it matter? Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. Here’s how to find out.

What does serving your story mean in the real writing-world?

Ask yourself a few questions, beginning with this one: Does this fact/narrative/description/detail touch the cornerstones of your story?

And these are my cornerstones:

  • What is your story really about? Its theme?

  • What does your character want, really want?

  • What does your character get/learn at the end of the story?

  • What are your character’s obstacles?

  • Will it enrich your story without dragging it down?

  • If my most beloved prose passages don’t touch those cornerstones. I can’t sneak them into my story.

So you’ve included only what serves the story. Whoa! Slow down, because I’m here to tell you about one final judge and jury.

The Ear

Almost all authors have the experience of being on book tour and as we read aloud the words that have already been published, we are self-editing as we go along. We are shifting a word here, a sentence there, deleting an adjective– all because the ear likes it better that way.

This year, I wrote my first novella meant only for the ear, an Audible Original. And while I have always been sensitive to the amount of information dumping I do in a story, this time I realized that by reading the narrative aloud I found where certain passages of writing needed to be axed or where the right kind of information was in the wrong place. Instances of both may trip up the story, making me want to hit fast forward (which amounts to skimming in the actual reading).

Read it aloud

When you think it’s all said and done and the last singer has exited the stage, when you’re ready to hand over that manuscript, take one more step: read it out loud from beginning to end.

Listen for places where you’re reading too fast, or bored with your fascinating historical detail, or listen for places that take you out of the story and into a research book.

Then after you’ve taken those pieces out that don’t serve the story or the ear, be consoled my friend because you know that those facts, your favorite ones, serve your story in a way the reader might not ever see. Just like the ceramic plate of French fries makes me smile every time I walk past it, no one else has to know about how it enriches my memories and life. You’ll secretly be aware that somehow your story is better and richer for having found the obscure information you removed from the narrative. Without dragging it down, it’s still there in the quiet space between the lines where the knowledge enriches your story.

Have you read passages of your own work aloud?

How was that different from reading silently at your desk? Share your experiences with us!

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Each of us will answer two questions every month in our newsletters.

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Dec 22, 2022

Unknown member
Aug 29, 2022

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