How to Find Your Story's Heart: 5 AWESOME Revision Techniques
Revising your story is tough shit. Once you've finally got a first draft down on the page, something tangible to work with, it can be hard to bring that messy work to something beautiful, publishable, something you're proud to say you wrote. It can be difficult to make your vision for the story match what you've put on the page. And it can be very very very hard to figure out what you even need to do to your story to get it to that point.
You may use a revising checklist or an editing checklist to bring your story to fruition, but sometimes that's just not enough. Perhaps this particular story DOESN'T call for setting overload, or this particular story DOES call for characterization development. Every story is unique in its needs.
The following five techniques will get you working with your story in the way revision was intended to be: a literal re-vision-ing of what your story is intended to be. They will get you thinking about your story in different ways. They'll ask you to pay attention to the specific, unique elements that THIS particular story needs. They'll ask you to remember the heart of the story, and bring that to the surface in a meaningful way.
This isn't about looking for the best word choice or making sure all the facts of your world match up, but rather about focusing on the content of your story. This is about making your story be what you intended it to be.
So, let's go get to the heart of your story. Are you ready?
5 awesome revision techniques
1. INTERVIEW YOURSELF ABOUT YOUR STORY
A month ago, I was revising this short story I'd been working on for a while with the intent to submit it for publication. And I was stuck. I knew what I wanted the story to do, but it just wasn't coming out right. It was so-so-so-so close, but just slightly off. And I couldn't understand why.
So, as we writers do, I jumped into the world of my imagination and played a little "what-if" game. I asked myself, "What if you DID get this story published and somebody was interviewing you about it? What would you say?"
I quickly scribbled out a two-page response. I wrote about my themes, my "aboutness", my "why", my Writer's DNA and how it fit into this particular story. I wrote about the difficulties I had and how I overcame them. I wrote about how the story evolved, how many different versions it went through, how things were right and wrong at different points in time. And I wrote it all with an air of confidence, that this was a story that WAS good enough and I was justified in talking about it.
THIS was extremely illuminating. It highlighted the major parts of my story that were working as well as the major parts that needed more emphasis. It allowed me to zoom way out and look at my story as a whole, to see what the point of it really was. It got me to stop worrying about comma placement and start focusing on larger thematic elements.
But what was especially interesting was all of the self-diagnosed edits that popped up when I was writing this story justification. As I was saying, "This story intends to communicate x, y, and z," I would pause to scribble a note in the margin of a specific thing that needed to be fixed. It was almost as if I was completing a brainstorming session for what I needed to edit in my story. At the end of my little exercise, I had a explanation of my story that helped me see WHAT I wanted my story to be, AND I had a checklist of the things I needed to change in order to make that happen. It was freaking awesome.
WHY DID THIS WORK?
- Because I stepped far away from my story and got to see it at a distance. I remembered and refocused my energy on the big picture and so I could see the faults more clearly.
- I realized how great I wanted this story to be. I envisioned my dreams becoming a reality, took an in-depth look at what success would mean to me, and then refocused my thoughts and behavior to make it happen.
HOW YOU CAN DO IT:
Envision the ultimate success for this piece: You get published. You win an award. You find readers who adore it. Now imagine you're being interviewed about your work. What would they ask you, and what would you say?
Write a response to these potential interview questions: Why did you want to write this story? Why is this story important to you? What is this story about? What was your inspiration for this story? Where did this voice come from? What did you intend to do with this story? Why did you make the choices you made (i.e. why did you write in third-person limited or why did you choose to end it like this or why include this scene or why did you pay so much attention to oranges)? How would you explain to them what you were intending to do? How would you justify the choices that you've made in this story? Act as if, and respond with confidence.
P.S. If you don't have a solid explanation for why you did what you did, it may not be necessary to include. Does that scene really need to exist? Does the point-of-view need to change? Do you need emphasize a different symbol instead?
Any ideas for things to change, write them down in the margins. Pay attention to how you can make your story match your justification. The goal here is to look at what you've got, dream about what you want it to be, and then bridge the gap between the two. This exercise is SO CRAZY and illuminating for me - I hope you have the same results!
2. READ YOUR STORY OUT LOUD
This technique is touted by almost everyone I know, and that's simply because it works. It's a little awkward, and can be a bit time-consuming, but it will do wonders to help with your story's flow.
When we read words on the page, we have a completely different experience with them in our heads than when we hear them out loud. The way we talk and the way we write are two different kinds of voices. To create Real+Good writing, you want to have a solid blend of the two in your work. Your work shouldn't sound exactly like you talk - you can be fun and poetic and literary - but it also shouldn't be filled with run-on sentences and awkward phrasings.
When I read my work out loud, it helps me get an overall feel to the story. I can hear the tone. I can hear my characters' voices. I can hear when they break out of character. I can hear where they sound awkward. I can hear where I over-explained or under-explained, where I need to add more words or take away some words. I can hear what's really going on in the story.
I especially like to read my work aloud to someone else. This usually ends up being my boyfriend, but it's also been my mom, my sisters, a friend. Reading for an audience puts a certain amount of pressure on you (and it's certainly scary!), but it also asks you to read slowly, to pay attention to each word, and to deliver it wholeheartedly. If you can read your story aloud to someone, DO IT! But if you've only got a wall and your cat, that will definitely work too.
why it works:
Reading your story out loud allows you to experience it in a different way. We can often get too close to our stories, and this allows us to back up, slow down, and hear how the story is flowing, if it's flowing at all. We can get closer to experiencing our story as a reader will experience our story.
how to do it:
Start reading out loud! Begin at the beginning, and read till the end. It's best if you can do it all in one sitting, but it may take a while if you have a very long work. Go slowly. Remember to emphasize. Remember to use vocal inflections. Read with the intentions of making it a good performance.
Pay attention to where you run out of breath. This may be a sentence to fix. Pay attention to where you stumble over your words. This may be a phrasing you need to fix. Pay attention to wherever it feels awkward or doesn't make sense. When you do go back and fix these sections, make sure to read the edited version out loud to see if it flows well with the rest of the work.
If you can have someone listen to you, FANTASTIC! Ask them to listen as an open-book. At the end, ask them their thoughts. Ask them where they were pulled out of the story. Ask them if anything felt awkward.
3. rewrite YOUR STORY from memory
This technique comes from Sarah Selecky's Deep Revision workshop. Unfortunately for Sarah - like what has probably happened to all of us at some point - she lost a polished draft of her story. It was "the one," and of course she was devastated. But she couldn't just ditch the whole story; it was just there and it was awesome! So she had to rewrite the story from scratch.
Now, her advice isn't to go around losing stories all the time. That would really suck. But what happened was truly amazing. Her story rewritten turned out to be better than the first story after all. The essence of the story, the heart of the story, the best pieces came through in the rewrite. What was even more awesome was, as she says, "The new story still had all of those years of improvements held within it, but it was written in one solid voice, instead of a patchwork of edits." The rewrite had, in fact, made her story SO MUCH BETTER.
I tried recreating this with my story for the first time a few years ago. It was a story that I was having A LOT of issues with and I couldn't seem to resolve it. It was a story I was so passionate about, but it just was kind of all over the place. It had a lot of amazing details, but I couldn't figure out which ones were the most important. In short, it was a story that was a big, big mess.
I didn't delete my original, edited draft. DON'T EVER DO THAT. You never know if you want to go back to it, or at least borrow something from it. But I did put it away and pulled out a blank piece of paper. I wrote the story as I remembered it from start to finish without referencing the original story at all. What ended up happening was exactly like Sarah's experience: I ended up with a story that highlighted the most important elements - in fact, some of the phrasing was exactly identical! - and did so in a good, unique, cohesive way.
When I compared the original story with the rewrite, I could pick and choose the best of both for further revisions. In some cases, I had gotten some awesome phrasing down in the original draft, and so I could just cut-and-paste that text. In other cases, the rewrite had done a much better job. Blending the two together created a SUPER-AWESOME draft.
What was also fascinating about this was analyzing the little details that my brain chose to remember. In the case of this story, "Barbie" was mentioned twice, even though the story itself had nothing to do with Barbies or dolls or anything of that nature. The image could have been deleted with no impact to the story whatsoever, but for some reason, my brain processed it, remembered it, and regurgitated it because it thought this analogy, this symbol was important. I asked why. I looked at why this symbol was so important and what it was actually contributing to the story. I asked it to justify itself for being there. I realized my themes ran a little deeper than I originally thought, and so then I could carefully and purposefully place them throughout the story for the appropriate effect.
why it works:
By forgetting about the intricate nuances in language, you allow your heart and mind to expose the raw essence of the story. You go back to the roots of what makes this story real and important.
Your brain reveals to you what is most important, what to emphasize, and what to forget about.
After you've done it, you can combine the two together by taking the best of both. You can blend the best of both worlds to create a strong, solid, even better draft.
You can expose trade secrets your brain is throwing into your work, then purposefully emphasize them to make your story stronger.
HOW YOU CAN DO IT:
Put your story away and rewrite it from scratch. Do it all in one single sitting if you can. Do NOT reference your original story for ANY reason! It will still be there later. For now, just see what your brain remembers. Try to write the best story you can, focused on concrete details, from memory.
Then, compare the two stories side-by-side. See what similarities are there. See what differences they have. See what you need to emphasize, what you can cut, and what secret symbols and messages have a greater weight than you previously consciously thought. Analyze those tiny details that carried over from one draft to another and figure out what their purpose is for existing.
Combine the two stories together to make one AWESOME story.
4. FEEL YOUR WAY THROUGH THE STORY
This sounds like a wonky one, but as you've seen, writing a Real+Good Story sometimes requires you to do something wonky things.
It can be hard to delineate EXACTLY what your story needs. And often, it needs a bunch of different things. But giving the same amount of attention to EVERYTHING your story could possibly need might be a waste of your efforts. Perhaps your setting is already really strong, so you don't need to do a whole read-through just looking for that. Perhaps your character's motivations are displayed clearly, except in a couple little parts, so you don't need a whole read-through for just that either.
You need to focus your energy and attention on the things that are the most important so you can revise your story quickly and efficiently without destroying the Real+Good stuff that already exists on the page.
Having a checklist of things you should edit - plot, setting, dialogue, voice, characterization, themes - is good and definitely handy; but some things need more attention than others, and some things need barely any attention at all. The issue with this is that it's difficult to know what those things are, as they change for every single story you write. This technique is about learning to listen to your story, learning to listen to what's working and what isn't working.
I've read through my stories with a red pen in hand, ready to tear them up. And I've (sometimes) done more damage than good. By thinking that I NEEDED to enhance the setting, I added filler. By thinking that I NEEDED to have less dialogue, I lost quality content. By thinking that I NEEDED to do x, y, and z, I turned my story into less than it was originally.
But feeling your way through a story is different. You learn to appreciate where you did things right. You learn to love where the good parts of your story are. You learn where the heart of your story is by paying attention to where things are smooth and solid. You learn to recognize your strengths and your weaknesses, so you know what to focus your attention on and what to leave alone. You learn where the issues are, so then you can dive deeper into small sections, analyze them on a teeny-tiny level, and bring them up to par with the rest of the story.
Feeling your way through a story is crazy, but it's also awesome-sauce.
why it works:
Instead of pre-diagnosing your story with a list of things you should fix, you pay attention to what's actually going on with it. You start revising your story by listening to what your story needs. You listen to where it's not exactly right. Then you fix what you need to in order to strengthen it, without destroying the awesome stuff you already created in the process.
You create your own little revision checklist by what your story needs instead of what your story MIGHT need.
how to do it:
So try reading through your story without the intentions of revising it, but just letting it wash over you. Read it as a reader. Read it through an unbiased, non-judgemental, editor-free lens. See what happens.
Every time you read something that feels a little bit off, that pulls you out of the story, that doesn't sound quite right or feel quite right, put a mark next to it. You don't have to write a note. You don't have to diagnose what's wrong. And you definitely don't have to brainstorm how to fix it. Simply note where it feels off and then keep going.
Every time you read something you love, put a heart next to that section. Remember that you liked it. Remember that it sounded well. BUT if things are going smoothly and you're reading without being pulled out of the story, don't purposefully pull yourself out to put a heart next to a spot. Later, when you've finished, go back and recognize these sections. You'll be able to spot them because you won't have little marks next to them. This is where things are going right for you. This is where your story is working. Appreciate these parts.
By the time you get through your whole story, you will have a list of highlighted places where your story needs the most attention. Then, you can go back and see what's really going on there. Then, you can analyze if you need to rephrase a paragraph, delete a scene, add some dialogue, deepen character backstory, enhance description, cut description, dive deeper, pull back, or whatever else that particular moment needs.
Make a list of everything you need to do, and then, attack!
5. Get an Outside Opinion
You should always have readers and they should be a mix of a wide variety of people. I have readers who are writers, who are my friends, who are my family. I have readers who know me and my writing very, very well so they're able to see my artistic statement, and I have readers who haven't read any of my work before at all so they're coming to the text as with a clean slate (should I say, blank page? ha). It is GOOD to have a mix of these so you can get a wide variety of answers.
People should always be reading your work to help you improve it and make it the best it can be. Getting an outside opinion is important to see if you're communicating your story in the way you're trying to communicate your story. They can highlight what's working and what isn't working for you. And it's important to get outside opinions because your story DOESN'T live in a vacuum; it IS going to have readers eventually, so you have to let people read it sometime.
The difference lies in how you interpret their response. You could change every little thing they suggest, or you could change nothing. What I like to do is use readers as a way to discover problematic sections of the story or specific craft elements that need more attention. If one person hates the way the protagonist talks, but the other person loves it, it might not be an element that has to be fixed. However, if everyone said they hate the ending, then I can know that THIS is where I should focus my attention.
Remember, when you get people to read your story, you probably aren't looking for them to tell you specifics. You want to pay attention to what's going right and what's not working. Perhaps they have successful ideas on how to fix it; but perhaps not. You have to trust your readers, but you don't have to take every piece of advice they give you. YOU are the chief of your story, and only YOU can decide what this story needs.
So when you find some people eager and willing to read your work, focus on the bigger picture, the overall themes and goals, rather than the tiny, itty-bitty changes.
why it works:
By choosing to focus on the BIGGEST overarching elements, you can tailor your story in a way that works for you. This will allow you to retain your voice and style while staying true to your intentions AND pleasing your readers all at the same time. If you focus on changing every little word here and there, you'll lose your sense of self over the piece.
You also get out of your own head and into someone else's. You send your story out to be received, and then you can analyze the response.
HOW TO DO IT:
Ask them to feel through your story, just like you did, as they're reading. Ask them to mark where they loved it, and where they pulled back. If they have advice, GREAT! If they don't, tell them not to worry about it. Tell them to focus on the moments where they were enraptured by the story, and moments where they were harshly reminded that they were reading something.
When they're done reading your story, ask them to reflect back to you what happened. Ask them to explain your story to you as if you've never read it (let alone wrote it). Ask them to tell you the major themes, the goals, the points. This will allow you to see if you've communicated your point effectively. If you've done well, you should hear what you're expecting. If you didn't do well, you'll hear a wide variety of answers, or worse, your reader won't be able to reflect back to you at all. This is an excellent standard to see how your story is coming across.
It's also absolutely fascinating to hear the way your readers will choose to explain things to you. I've been enlightened about my own story SO MANY TIMES because my readers have told me about my work in ways I didn't use before. If you want to see the heart of your story, ask somebody else to explain it to you.
Ask them what they loved + what they would change. Give them an open floor to talk about their own diagnostic preferences. Let this be as unguided as possible - aka, don't talk, just listen.
Only after they've finished, when they have nothing else to say, direct them to certain places or elements you're concerned about. If you're concerned about the dialogue, ask, "What did you think about the dialogue?" If you're concerned about the ending scene, ask, "How did you feel about the ending scene?" As you direct their attention to specific pieces, make sure to continue asking open-ended questions to get a variety of responses without leading them in a certain direction.
Open-Ended Questions = The BEST Answers.
After all of this, you can declare your intentions. You can tell them what your goals were, why you're worried about certain pieces, and what you think about what they've said. You MUST WAIT to tell your readers these things until after they've said everything they wanted to say in order to keep their responses unbiased and true. Trust me, you want to hear their opinions first.
Then, after talking to all your readers, look for commonalities. Did EVERYBODY hate the ending? Did EVERYBODY give attention to that one line in the middle, be it good or bad? What did everybody, or most everybody, choose to talk about? These are the sections or elements that you know not to touch, or destroy with a vengeance in revisions. These are the parts that you need to pay attention to.
And again, don't feel like you need to take ALL the advice. You'll probably have some conflicting advice. You need to do the things that work for you and your story specifically.