The Only Revision Strategies You’ll Ever Need
Revision is one of the most intimidating aspects of writing. Here’s how to break it down.
I’ve been a professional writer for more than 10 years, and let me tell you — revision is still for me the hardest part of writing. It’s harder than brainstorming, harder than outlining, harder than the actual writing. Why? Because revision is about undoing what you’ve already done, and that’s hard. As Stephen King would say, revision is all about “killing your darlings.” But that’s not the only reason revision is tough. It’s hard because the options feel endless. Revision can go on forever if you let it. But here’s the good news. Revision isn’t nearly as unwieldly as we think it is. In fact, there are only 4 kinds of revision. That’s it! Just 4. And once you realize that revision can be broken down into distinct and digestible actions, the process doesn’t seem nearly as intimidating. Here’s my breakdown of the revision process into distinct types and suggestions for when to use each.
Revision type 1: Addition
Are you short on word count? Or think that a character or idea is too thin? Then you probably need to lengthen your writing project. That’s where “addition” comes in. You are literally “adding” words. Addition is the easiest form of revision, so it’s the one that people usually go to first. But it’s not always the most helpful. Sometimes adding more words doesn’t make a thought clearer — it just buries it further. Use this type of revision only when you’re sure that you have more to say.
Revision type 2: Subtraction
When doing “subtraction” you are subtracting, or deleting your work from the page. This type of revision is harder. It’s the type Stephen King was referring to when he said “kill your darlings” — and as any writer will tell you, that’s never easy, especially if you’ve put a lot of time into your writing already.This type is most useful if you are over word count or have strayed from the original purpose of your piece.
Revision type 3: Replacement
This type of revision is a combination of the first two: you are adding new writing while subtracting other writing. “Replacement” is one of the most useful types of revision because it doesn’t lower your word count and it’s emotionally easier than simply deleting your work. But beyond that it almost always makes your writing stronger, because it forces you to work within the writing you’ve already done. Use replacement style revision when you find yourself repeating too many ideas, straying off topic, or think of an idea that’s stronger than one you already have on the page.
Revision type 4: Rearrangement
This type of revision is, to my mind, the most effective kind of revision. Instead of changing the words you’ve written, you’re “rearranging” their order by moving one word, sentence, or paragraph at a time. This kind of revision forces you to rethink the organization of your piece as a whole as well as its smaller sections. It also forces you to come up with stronger transitions. Use this type of revision if you’re confident in your ideas but feel like the “flow” needs improvement. Sometimes rearrangement can inspire new ideas altogether. When that happens, open up a blank page and copy your ideas there. They’ll be waiting for you the next time you want to start a new writing project.
And that’s it! Just 4 types of revision. Let me know which works best for you.