How to Revise Before You Begin

I’ll admit that I don’t love to revise my own writing (does anyone?). And it’s not just the part about having to “kill my darlings” that I don’t like. I feel like it’s inefficient. I still do it, of course, but the way I see it, I might as well just slow down the process a bit and look for things I would have to eventually revise as I’m writing.

It sounds too simple. That’s because it is! Here are some thoughts for how to write with your revision goggles on from the very beginning.

1. Obsess Over the First Page

First, though, obsess over the first line. First impressions matter enormously unless you are already famous. (Stephen King probably doesn’t have to worry as much as you do about first lines, but I’ll bet he does anyway.) You need to build credibility that you have an incredible story to tell, and your readers or potential editors or agents are looking for any excuse to put down your work and read something else, so don’t let them. Don’t give a weak or clammy handshake!

But once you’ve nailed the first line, don’t relax; dig deeper. A story should be a turning point, a moment in a character’s life when everything could change (maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t — but that’s plot and that will hopefully evolve naturally from your characters and situation). By the bottom of the first page, and preferably in the first paragraph, your reader should have a crucial conflict and a character, hopefully one with some deeply thwarted desire. Get it all out there in the beginning. Who do we care about? And why should we care? Why these people? And why now?

2. Short Stories Are Not Like Films

We live in a visual world, so plenty of writers try to write “cinematically,” but this style often fails in short fiction because readers want to be oriented first in a mind, then a place. Resist the urge to start with a vivid, lyrical description of a landscape or a comprehensive description of a scene, for instance, because the reader doesn’t know what or whom to care about yet.

It’s the same with dialogue. Rather than building mystery, beginning with sustained dialogue in fiction is often confusing and disorienting. Be a good host and introduce the reader to the other guests before expecting them to have a coherent conversation. Give as much information as you can, and if you want to begin with a scene, deliver that information quickly by weaving it in with narration between the dialogue and action.

3. Read Your Work Out Loud

A lot of the work of revision comes in the process of evaluating the rhythm of the sentences themselves, but if you’re reading the words out loud as you compose them, you’ll hear the false notes right away. You’ll pick up grammatical mistakes, dangling modifiers, and just plain clunky language if you read out loud. And if you’re writing in a public place, like a café or a library, even reading under your breath in a whisper is enough to get the feel of the rhythm.

4. Dialogue Should Not Sound Like Real Talking

A common mistake writers tend to make in a first draft is trying to mimic the sound of real speech in an attempt at verisimilitude. The problem with real speech is that it’s incredibly boring. I was in a craft talk recently where the presenter pointed out that your dialogue should be more interesting than anything anyone you know would ever say. It should delight and surprise. Check out Lorrie Moore’s collection Birds of America for examples of that. I'm rereading it right now, and it's consistently, uncannily good. Real people don’t really talk the way her characters do at all, but everything her characters say is so interesting, and they say those things so interestingly, that I want to listen to them forever. I’m completely hooked.

5. Obsess Over the Last Page

This also should be a no-brainer, but so many endings fail to live up to the potential of the rest of the story. Resist the urge to wrap things up neatly or slap on a temporary ending as a placeholder in a first draft, and don’t try to say something profound. Instead, try to leave the reader with the feeling of pain in their chest, as if they’ve just gotten the wind knocked out of them. That’s difficult to do, yes, and it’s hard to articulate how to accomplish it, but that’s the job of a writer. You know the feeling when you’ve done it, so don’t stop until you’ve achieved it. Are you showing off? Are you trying to be esoteric? Don’t. Instead, make yourself bleed. Find the deepest, darkest, hardest part of your character’s conflict, and then go there, face it, and don’t look away.