If you’re a writer, you’re a reviser, and if you’re like me, the revising is the hard part. I can produce rollicking piles of crappy writing in no time flat, but it’s a hard, laborious process to turn it into something anyone would want to read. And since I’ve spent half my life revising academic papers, at times it takes a concerted switch in mindset to edit my fiction.
One of the best tools I’ve found for this is The Writer’s Digest Writing Clinic: Expert Help for Improving Your Work, by Kelly Nickell. The bad news up-front is this book is out of print; the good news is you can get ‘used’ new copies without too much problem. I originally found this book at my library and loved it so much I bought a copy for myself.
The book has divisions for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and then moves on to helping you get your writing published with divisions on writing queries, synopses, and proposals. Each division has sections that deal with a topic: opening hook, point of view, narrative voice, dialogue, exposition, etc. At the beginning and the end of the book there are sections to help you find writing groups, and to help you navigate critique groups effectively to get what you need and leave the not-so-great parts behind.
For each topic, the book has an introductory explanation of the basic issues involved, and then takes a piece of writing and edits it right in front of you—all the marks an editor would make, along with annotations that explain why the changes were made.
Then, at the end of each topic, there is a ‘your turn’ section that walks you through checking for this issue in your own writing. For example, '(1) Take a look at your first three scenes. Write ‘PI’ next to the points where your main character’s personal intentions become clear. Do the intentions propel the scenes forward and add insight into your character? Are they consistent with your intended storyline? (2) Now chart your character’s journey. Write ‘j’ next to thoughts and actions that are inspired by your character’s personal intentions. Is your character’s journey apparent in each scene? Do the marked points move the scenes forward?
At at the end of each division (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.) is a general editing checklist for quick reference.
I’m a very show-me sort of person; telling me that too much description is slowing the pace of my scene is one thing, but showing me before-and-after examples makes it far more real for me. And when you’ve got annotations along with those changes, well, now we’re talking. Something about getting a look at something through an editor’s eyes helps the information penetrate my thick skull more effectively.
I think this is an excellent book whether you're new to revising your own stuff or you've been doing it for a long time--I periodically flip through it to refresh my memory.
If you're looking for other good books to help you with revision, check out my review of Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley here.