OK, tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A poet walks into a bar …
In this case, the bar is that weird obstacle that at some point all writers run into during the revision process. It’s not the good kind of bar, like a candy bar or a bar where everybody know your name. It’s this really crappy place that makes you long for a swift and painless death — either for your piece or yourself. And it’s particularly tricky with respect to creative work because there’s this idea — sometimes truer, sometimes less true but still true to some degree — that there is no prior model to consult or follow, no guideposts along the path as might be the case when writing, say, a traditional five-paragraph essay.
If you’ve ever been stuck in this strange revision-y hell, you’re not alone. But you don’t care about that, right? You want to know where to go from there. How can you possibly proceed?
Here’s a list of tips that have helped me break free from the seven circles of revision Hades:
1. Move from hard copy to computer or vice versa. We engage different parts of our brains when working on paper versus a keyboard. Take advantage of this fact and see what happens when your mind is working differently because of the different medium. You could even accomplish this by writing in a different place or at a different time than you usually do; I highly recommend in the middle of the night or right before you fall asleep, when the mind seems most pliable.
2. Go back to the first draft. Yes, it’s good to have detached yourself from your first draft and moved on from it, but sometimes you need to remember where you started and what your whole point for the piece was in the first place. Every once in a while, there’s a clue to moving forward in revision hiding there.
Now, if you didn’t keep the first draft, shame on you. Keep all your drafts. You never know when you might need them.
3. Look at the big picture. Is the problem that the point has been lost? How can you get back to it? Where were you derailed from it to begin with? Cut from there and restart or recognize your original point has changed. If that’s the case, what’s the new point, and what no longer belongs to it? Cut and go from there.
4. Look at the little things. This is easier to do as a poet, but consider each individual word, piece of punctuation, the rhythm of each line and sentence, etc. Is the piece too homogenized without purpose? Not balanced enough without purpose? How would a title change shift the entire trajectory of the piece? How would you need to change the piece to keep the new title?
5. Break out your dictionary and thesaurus. I’m a synonym junkie, and I often find that when I’m looking for a better sounding synonym, I find out something intriguing about a word’s etymology that I end up wanting to leverage by using that word in my piece. Let serendipity guide your revision. My mentor assured me I could trust in sound, and I’ve found that to be overwhelmingly true during revision.
6. Trust your gut. If you’ve been writing for a while — heck, even if you haven’t — you usually know where the trouble is. You can feel it. So don’t overwhelm yourself. Use some of the tips above to focus on that area and forget about the rest for now.
7. Get another set of eyes on it. If you have the luxury of a peer network, ask for help. If not, there are places out there that will provide feedback on your work for a fee. Carve Magazine is one example.
8. Look to an already published piece yours resembles or draws some type of inspiration from and see how the problem was solved there. Some writers like to think that what they’re creating is so novel, so new, and so unique that there couldn’t possibly be any work already out there to draw some insight from. It’s usually just that we’re unfamiliar with the particular work out there that might help guide us, though. Review some of your favorite writers’ work, ask around, or do a Google search. For example, is there a single-sentence, first-person sonnet already out there whose approach might hold the key to your revision?
9. Combine the draft with another draft and see what happens. It doesn’t matter what balance you do this in (90/10, 60/40, 20/80, etc.), but combining your problem-child draft with another can help you see both in a new light. You don’t have to commit to moving forward with keeping the two together; you’re just using one to open up the possibilities in the other.
10. Get over your fear of making it worse. Part of your revision struggle may stem from fear. Again, this is why you should keep all your drafts — so you can always go back! Don’t let your fear keep you from taking a risk and moving forward. After all, writing is supposed to be about risk!
11. Take time away. I am a huge believer in taking a significant amount of time away from each piece. Don’t force revision or “finishing.” Yeah, I know there’s a contest with a deadline. Yeah, I know you’re impatient. But you’re probably not going to die tomorrow, and you’re really not in any rush. You grow as a writer and a person in your time away from your pieces, and you also grow more detached from them — which helps tremendously when you revise in the future.
12. Make sure it’s not actually done. This is another one of those tricks your mind sometimes plays on you. No creative piece ever really feels done, but we still have to move on eventually. Does this piece really need more revising, or are you just scared to move on to the next blank page and start again?