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The Perils of Revision

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Steerpike, Aug 13, 2013.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I don't want to derail the first draft thread with this, since it pertains to revisions generally and not simply to whether a first draft is any good.

    An anecdote - a couple of years ago I reviewed a story for a guy in the writing group I was in at the time. It was an offbeat, strange fantasy, and it needed work, but it was also charmingly funny and I liked the characters. I saw the revised version about six months later. Many of the problems had been fixed, and the writing tightened. However, though the story was still humorous, it wasn't as funny as it had been in the initial draft. Also, I didn't give a fig about the characters anymore. The guy had revised the life out of it.

    One thing to keep in mind from the start is that 'tight' writing is a style, and like any other style it is a preference and not an absolute requirement for good writing. I read a lot of tight writing, because I like thrillers and police/detective stories, and if you want to see how lean, tight writing can be done well I can recommend some names in that genre. In fantasy, tight writing isn't nearly as prevalent. All you have to do is grab some books off the shelves at your local bookstore, both well-known works and lesser known works, and flip through them. You'll see dozens of places where the writing could be tightened.

    Did the writer just say "Screw it, that's good enough?" Did the editor just say "Meh, this'll sell?" I doubt it. Sometimes, the way you say something is a lot more important than tightening the writing. Sometimes, your word choice and sentence structure is more effective than a tight sentence imparting the same information can be.

    When you write that first draft, if you're anything like me you're a bit in the grip of your muse. You're writing organically, and you're using parts of your brain that don't care as much about the analytical aspects of writing. When you revise, on the other hand, you engage the analytical brain and start looking at the work as a series of words and sentences that can be improved or not, as the case may be.

    When you revise, therefore, you're not only improving the writing (one hopes) but you're tinkering with what that emotive, organic brain has done. If you over-do the revision process, you can do a lot of harm to the work. I've seen writers in my writing groups on multiple occasions strip away an engaging voice and put increased distance between the reader and the characters solely as a result of revision.

    I'm not saying you shouldn't revise, of course. It is necessary for most of us. But you have to be able to tell whether you're actually doing yourself more harm than good. If all you're thinking about it tightening your sentences, odds are you're going to hurt the emotional link to the characters and the narrative voice (if any). In fact, over-revising (or maybe more accurately, misguided revision) is one of the quickest ways I've seen of striping the life out of a story.

    This is one reason I think some authors stick with what is more or less a first draft. Maybe they fix typos and tinker with a few things here and there, but they don't want to harm the imaginative product of their brain during that initial organic writing process.

    Again, looking solely for 'tight' writing is a stylistic preference, and it's not even one that is widespread in fantasy writing, from what I can tell. It is a lot harder to create engaging character connections and emotions with that style, because when the words themselves are stripped to their bare bones you have to rely on other means to do it. It can be done - as I said, I've seen thriller/detective writers do it quite well. It is a mistake, however, to think that you have to do it that way.

    When writing fiction, we're working with words. They have power and utility far beyond a bare-bone implementation of words on a page to convey information. They convey emotion, invoke memories, carry connotations, and so on. If all you're worried about is getting the leanest, tightest sentences on the page, you've robbed yourself of a lot of the power of the written word. That's fine, as a stylistic preference, but you have to be ready for the fact that if you're trying to create an emotional connection you've just made your job more difficult. It is a terrible mistake to assume that you have to write that way.

    Next time you're in the fantasy section of your local bookstore, grab a dozen random fantasy books off the shelf. How many of them have lean, tight writing that follows all of the rules and sit generically on the page? Try it again, and this time limit yourself to epic fantasies. How many of those have it? Not many.

    Don't fool yourself into thinking that tight, generic, no-nonsense sentences are the only way to write. And when you sit down to revise your work (and yes, a certain amount of tightening is bound to make your work better), don't just engage the analytic mind and treat every sentence in a vacuum, divorced from the larger work, so that all you care about is whether this sentence or that could be tighter. Keep in mind your vision of the broader work, as well as your narrative style, as well as the voice you're going for. Think about the emotions you want to invoke, and the bonds you want to create. Take full advantage of the fact that you're working in a written medium with multiple tools and approaches at your disposal.

    If a twenty-word sentence that is evocative, and carries connotation or layers of meaning to the reader could be replaced with a tight, ten-word sentence that doesn't do those things, don't do it.
     
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  2. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Very refreshing post to read, Steepike. The attitude espoused by certain posters here that good writing should be "tight" has grown obnoxious for me and so I'm glad to see someone speak out against it. It's not that I dislike tight writing styles by themselves, but people really need to drop the sentiment that everyone should write the exact same way.
     
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  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think it is a mistake to assume any style represents the 'best' form for writing. It doesn't. Preferences grow and fade in popularity, but they're still ultimately preferences. Lean, tight writing may be in style at one point, and then preferences can change.

    I like tight writing, particularly in thrillers and mysteries, where it works so well. If that's all that was out there in the fantasy genre, I wouldn't be happy. Luckily, it's not even the dominant form in fantasy.

    EDIT: I should not, however, that I don't have a problem with people who espouse a preference for tight, lean writing. We like what we like, and that's fine. I don't like to see an impression created that everyone should want to write that way, or that you have to do so to make a 'good' story.
     
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2013
  4. Butterfly

    Butterfly Auror

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    I totally agree. If we all wrote exactly the same way well then there would be no individual voices or differences in style, no shading of colour or differences in atmospheres between books, genres, characters... everything. Everyone would all sound the same.
     
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2013
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  5. Graylorne

    Graylorne Archmage

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    Perhaps I'm struggling with foreign terminology, but why the equation revision = tightening?
    To me revision is much more; making emotions more clear, enhancing dialogues, checking logics, descriptions, the lot. Thightening isn't really in the upper regions.

    So are we're talking about different concepts?

    NB: Drat, you're all posting so much faster than I. Anyhow; question answered :)
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yeah, I'm more like you. Or, rather, my revision process is designed to do whatever the work needs. In some places, that may be tightening. In others, it may be deciding that a portion that could be tightened is better off not being tightened. And then it includes all the other things you mentioned.

    But achieving tight or lean writing is often held out as a sort of holy grail of the editing process, and I think that's a mistake.
     
  7. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    This paragraph says it all very well, and I agree. The only exception, in my view, concerns clarity. If revision & tightening is geared toward clarity (assuming ambiguity is not a desired effect) then I think that tightening is almost always going to be beneficial.

    I too have seen the life whipped out of a story by over revision. Because of this, I keep copies of old drafts stored away, just in case.


    I think you're making some assumptions here that may not be accurate. Keep in mind, when people offer advice, knowledge, or opinions on a topic, they're going to speak from their own view of style, what works for them. If they are consistent with that type of information it may seem like they're saying "this is the only way that works". I doubt many on this forum are that hard-lined and myopic in their outlook.

    We certainly shouldn't need some kind of disclaimer trailing every bit of advice that states, "This is my opinion. It's what works for my writing, and not for everyone". This should be relatively easy to comprehend. After all, we're just dealing with opinions, nothing more. Absorb what is useful for you, discard the rest.

    Differences in thinking generate conversation on the topics of craft. That's what this forum is all about.
     
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2013
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  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes, I think that's right. I suppose as you said a person might be going for ambiguity, but at least in my own writing I want to clearly convey what I'm trying to convey, whether it be done in a lean style or in a more wordy manner.
     
  9. Guru Coyote

    Guru Coyote Archmage

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    When I started being serious about improving my writing, I would write a story start to end (first draft), and then go over it in several iterations of revision... mostly the mentioned tightening. That worked well on shorter short stories. Until I had a story that spans 10k words... it's still in its original first draft stage today, although many who read it say it may be one of my best stories.

    Recently I fell back into a style that was how I used to work before: I would write a paragraph, read it, revise it. Write the next, go back to the first and fix what poped up... etc.
    Basically I do the tightening and cleaning up *as I go along*. this has lead to material of much higher over-all quality.
    Why? I think this is due to the fact that I can do the necessary tightening up etc. When I Am In The Story the most. When the original idea is there, vivid and alive. In THAT moment I can judge if my writing conveys what I want it to, if I achieve the effect I aimed for.

    Later edit passes are now reserved for things like consistency, logic. And sometimes... I will actually add things in later passes... descriptions, emotions etc.
    Basically what I do now is start out with a tight, possibly bare bones version of the narrative, lean and to the point. To a degree that I might even have things like (add body language here).

    Anyway, now I sound smarter than I am, so I'll end here.
     
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  10. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Out of curiosity, am I one of the writers you think advocates tight writing? (My sentences tend not to be long, but if "tight" means what I think it means, it's not the rubric I use for my writing.)
     
  11. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    No, I've never had that impression.

    Nor do I think it is a wrong approach to writing. As I said, I read books written that way and if someone wants to adopt that style as their goal, more power to them. I don't like the impression that often gets created on writing sites that should be everyone's goal or that it is the only way to write.
     
  12. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Come to think of it, who are you saying advocates tight writing? I've heard Leif Notae do such, but he's not exactly pushy about it. Most of the other trimming I've seen advocated on Mythic Scribes has been in service of eliminating discordance (e.g. removing a highly informal word from a sentence full of formal words.)
     
  13. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I'm a pretty big advocate of tight writing.

    I feel that the style is, in general, more engaging, clearer, and improves pace.

    That being said, creating a super tight story isn't the goal as much as a way I feel helps to achieve a goal. My primary objection is completely wasted words and phrases that repeat an already established concept.
     
  14. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    I have advised people to "tighten" up their writing. To me, I most often recommend it where descriptions ran on for paragraphs or the writing meandered. I believe the concept of tightening up a manuscript encompasses several things. One, you're cutting erroneous words. I truly mean ERRONEOUS. Not simply "could be done without". It rubs me the wrong way when I read an emotionless manuscript, little more than a play-by-play stat sheet. But it also makes me want to throw up in my mouth when a writer beats a dead horse... and then beats it again... and once more for good measure.

    And again.

    :)

    To me, tightening up a manuscript also entails figuring out the best way to convey something. SO if a character is in a street brawl, one could write the scene as a play-by-play, giving brief descriptions and using clear, concise language that conveys the picture... But alone, that lacks all the things that draw a reader into a character. Steerpike, you're absolutely correct in saying that wording does more than just conveying the story. It's essential for pacing, and sometimes, internal musing or conflict elevates a dull scene to a shining example of good characterization.

    One thing I've gotten into several debates about lately is dialogue tags. You know what? Sometimes I put them in, even if they aren't necessary! Sometimes I combine a tag and a beat. Sometimes I shoot rapid dialogues with no tag between two characters. Each of those serves a purpose and I try to ensure that whichever way I choose, it does double-duty.

    SOmetimes, a dialogue tag or beat is important to break up a sentence. It gives the reader just a brief moment to let a piece of information sink in or an image to form in their mind. If you tighten up your writing to the bare bones for brevity's sake, you miss out on that HUGE opportunity to pace the novel in a natural way. I hate it when I see dialogues broken into paragraphs. Really... If your character has five connecting lines of dialogue, without another character speaking, interrupting,, retorting, etc... then there's a problem. Why? Because it doesn't often flow well like that. It's no longer a conversation, it's a lecture. And you risk making the reader feel as though he's being lectured too.

    One thing I think writers who are still honing their skills ought to be doubly aware of, is that the converse is also problematic. Just as sometimes it's appropriate to shorten "She gazed into her partner's devilishly handsome blue eyes and wondered whether he could be so bold as to lie to her face..." TO "The corner of his mouth twitched, a hint almost missed. Was he lying?" It is also sometimes important to exchange: "Fish sizzled in the pan, causing his stomach to rumble as cooking smells beckoned him closer to the cook fire." FOR: "Fish sizzled in the pan. Long gone days alone on the lake with Grandpa came flooding back. He smiled, recalling Grandpa biting his lower lip as he gutted the fish with his finger and tossed them into the pan. He closed his eyes, imagining a time that could never be had again. Grandpa was gone. Fondly remembered at unlikely times, like when he had to cook a hasty breakfast over an open fire, but gone, nonetheless."

    I mean... it's hard to give one-size-fits-all advice, but I do believe more people should tighten than need to really expound on their concepts. But again, for me, tightening is more a round about way of saying "making more meaningful if you can and cutting if you can't". :)
     
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2013
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  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes, I agree with the last couple of posts (and I know BWFoster talks a lot about tightening writing). Again, it's not tightening certain aspects of the writing per se that I think is problematic. There are places to tighten, eliminate word, cut down sentence length, and so on. But I don't think the goal should always be just focused on doing that. As I said above, you'll cut a lot of the life right out of the work. There are times where your style, or the mood or impression you want to create, calls for longer sentences, with more words (for example) that could have been restated in much shorter sentences, but would lose something in so doing.
     
  16. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    It's all a balancing act.

    Is having a tight, clear sentence more important or is the character voice or is pacing? Really have to judge on a case by case basis.
     
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  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Agreed. That's the only way to approach it, in my view. And I might even look at it differently from work to work, depending on what style or atmosphere I am trying to create.
     
  18. Guru Coyote

    Guru Coyote Archmage

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    If I have a piece of writing that is wordier than it might need to be because I think its life needs it... and then I get the comment I could/should tighten up my writing... I will usually look very hard at those extra words and ask: did those words maybe fail to convey that life I thought they would?
     
  19. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    I'd say pacing is knowing when to tighten and when to flesh out tone and such, case by case.

    Also, this is in the context of the style you've written the tale in. For instance, the more you've been using details in general and scenery in particular, the more odd it looks to rush through one bit of landscape. (Though I suppose that oddity could have its own pacing effect, of "Whoa, the MC's really in shock!" or "If this writer's hurrying we must be closer to the big stuff than I thought.")
     
  20. Filk

    Filk Troubadour

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    I feel like if you've already developed a voice and style as a writer, then revision has little to do with tightening or loosening the text. If you like it tight, then your story should already be tightly written. There are instances where you may shave or expound, but the story should already have a consistent voice. I can see the point about not taking too much out, but then again you shouldn't be developing your style in the revision process.

    For me, revision is more about fixing points where your writing has failed to meet the par you were going for, exempli gratia making your story more poignant or your descriptions more visible. It is definitely a balancing act to keep yourself from obsessing over every last detail and overdoing it, which can result in an overworked piece which has lost its original feel. However, one certainly shouldn't feel reluctant to try and improve upon what they've written. Maybe I'm just jealous of the one draft wonders out there. hehe
     
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