Technique for Revision

As you may already know, I’m revising the first draft of a memoir. Since my return home from a three-week writer’s residency, because of the intensity and largesse of time afforded by that residency, I’ve come up with a new technique to help me through the revision process.

 

Thanks to Elizabeth

 

I remember taking a five-day workshop in the latter 1990s with the marvelous author and teacher Elizabeth Strout. She said two things I’ve always remembered. One was to read a poem each night so that fine language—and the art of compression—was the last thing we put into our heads before sleep. That’s a marvelous idea and some day I’ll manage to follow what can only be excellent advice.

Facial portrait of Elizabeth Strout from her website

The second thing she said, in the context of editing and revising a short story or longer piece, was to leave it lying casually around because looking at it from a different angle, say on a coffee table in the living room, would give us a different perspective. Our eyes would become that much sharper when it came to wielding the literary shears needed for optimal pruning.

I haven’t done that either.

 

Two-Column Wonder

 

What I have done is a variation on that theme, however, though I came to it purely by accident and in search of something else, the way we humans discover so many things.

When I had my freshly revised Chapter 2, a hybrid of new writing and some paragraphs leveraged from various places in my first draft, I copied the whole of it and pasted it into the fat column of a two-column table where the left column was skinny and the right one wide.

My intention was to put in the blank skinny column opposite every paragraph of text a summary, using only a few words, of what the point of the paragraph was, its raison d’etre. If it didn’t have one that moved the story forward or inward or backward, as memoir must, then out the paragraph should come.

This is a very handy technique if I do say so myself. At least, it works for me. I cut out some very pretty paragraphs that had blinded me to their lack of purpose, just as I’d hoped I’d be able to.

2 pages showing my revision technique

But I also discovered a much better way to organize several sections. By moving things around, voila! Suddenly I had a much stronger ending and a chapter that had the shape of a chapter. I had not expected the two-column technique to be so helpful structurally and that was a marvelous second benefit.

 

Another surprise came when I noticed that this process took much longer than expected. I kept getting distracted by line-editing the text on the right, the text I’d already edited before pasting it into the column. Because it looked different, I saw it differently. Just as Elizabeth Strout, more than ten years ago, suggested I would .

 

Four-By-Two Review

 

The fourth by-product of the two-column review took me two chapters’ worth of using it to notice. When I had to summarize each chapter in a pithy phrase like narrator’s sister was brave at one time, sometimes I had a reaction to the summary which I hadn’t had before. In this case, I’d never thought of my sister as brave, but there was the evidence in black-and-white right in front of me. Fascinating! And where might I go with this?

In other words, the summary paragraph statements clarified not only the paragraph but the story for me, the writer of the story. Here’s another example: narrator uses myths to survive. At one level, of course, I knew that. But I never would have said it that way, with such broad implications that I could then apply backward and forward in the book.

Try my Four-By-Two Review yourself. Let me know if it works for you, either to help you prune sections that don’t enhance the story; improve the structure of your chapter;  line-edit your text; and/or create fresh insight into your own material .

If you have a technique that works well for you that I could try, please share it.

Meantime, happy revising.

 

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  1. This is a great way to ruminate on the telling of a story, writing out the back-story. Thanks for the post. Brings to mind the back-story process actors use. Also, appreciate the reason for reading poetry, to have wonderful language in one’s head. I’ve been watching TCM classic movies, the old b&w ones for optimism,

  2. Heather Taylor Mar 21st 2011

    Hi Cheryl I just checked out your “Technique for Revision” and wanted to share with you that I’ve used the “leave it laying around” part for years with my painting. Sometimes when I catch a glimpse of a work out of the corner of eye I get drawn to it and can see it fresh. Michael Lehman, who had his studio at the end of Wolf Barn, said to turn the painting to the wall. But I like being surprized by seeing mine – as if discovering it as something new.

  3. What a terrific post, Cheryl! I have used a variation of this technique, too, but you explain it so much better than I ever could and your examples are excellent. Maybe by the time you are done, you will have TWO books. The memoir, and a “how to revise” book!