Sea Change: How to Revise Out the Bad and Keep the Good

by | Mar 17, 2013 | Lists, Reading, Writing | 2 comments

"Is this wheat, or chaff?" "It's cotton, stupid." Image courtesy of Winslow Homer.

“Is this wheat, or chaff?”
“It’s cotton, stupid.”
Image courtesy of Winslow Homer.

I will readily admit that revisions are extremely difficult for me. One of the things I dread most about finishing a project is the prospect of then having to begin revising it. It’s difficult for me to precisely identify what it is about revisions that bothers me so much; some times I feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of imperfect material that I have to slog through, while other times it’s a question of beating down my ego in order to recognize what is wheat and what is chaff, and how to separate the two.

Point is, revisions are not my favorite thing.

These pencils. In my eyes.

These pencils. In my eyes.

More often than not during the revisions process, I find myself staring at my manuscript until the black words marching across the page begin to swirl like ants being flushed down the toilet. I’ll force myself to tinker with a few sentences here and there, rearranging words without much confidence that any one phrase is better than another. And then I’ll give up, shuffling off to stab pencils into my eyes out of pure frustration.

But the first step is admitting you have a problem, right? So in an effort to get over this revisions mental block, I’m going to try to identify where my issues lie, and how to start overcoming those obstacles.

"I thought this was going to be more like Fifty Shades of Grey."

“I thought this was going to be more like
Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Switch from writer mode to reader mode. When you spend months pouring words out onto a page and living a story even as you weave it from nothing but pure imagination, it can be difficult to step away from the perspective of omniscient creator. I have to forget that I am the god of these characters, and this world, and begin to inhabit the perspective of a reader. Someone for whom a plot hole is extremely confusing, for whom pacing is the difference between finishing and quitting, for whom character incontinuities are annoying and off-putting. I have to learn how to be my own best critic.

Start small and move to the bigger picture slowly. It can be difficult to feel like you’re getting anywhere when all you’re doing is nitpicking over awkward sentences and improper grammar, especially when you know in the back of your head that there are plot holes waiting to be filled and characters waiting to be fleshed out. But if the language is clean and tight, free of grammar or spelling mistakes, it is so much easier to see macro-level problems. I have to learn to accept that correcting and polishing small mistakes is still productive, and will make it easier for me to see bigger problems in the long run.

Coincidentally one of my favorite albums of all time. Image courtesy of Beck.

Coincidentally one of my favorite albums of all time.
Image courtesy of Beck.

Don’t be afraid to affect change, and don’t be afraid of its effect. As Shakespeare writes in The Tempest, ‘Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange,’ meaning that just because the substance of something is transformed, the form can be retained. Often we instinctively want to protect the things we create, but that is a selfish and egotistic attitude. Mindful and conscientious change is nearly always a good thing. I have to remember that just because I’m altering something that I’ve previously created doesn’t mean that I’m not being true to the thing itself. Chances are, whatever I change will be just as good, if not better, than the original, and will still be my work.

It’s okay to love the bad parts, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep them. There are going to be times when a scene or a conversation personally speaks to you as a writer, but that you know doesn’t work in the story or slows the action. Cut it out, but keep it. I’ve started keeping a word documents with paragraph fragments or descriptions that I loved writing but that didn’t work in whatever project I was working on. You never know–you might find a perfect place for that sentence or description somewhere down the line, but it doesn’t have to be today.

I know I still have a lot of work to do before I become more effective in the revision stage of a manuscript, but realizing where my difficulties lie is the first step to streamlining my process.

Are revisions difficult for you? Or do you struggle with a different aspect of the creative process? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!


  1. Kourtney Heintz

    Revisions used to feel super overwhelming until I took several workshops on revising. One gave me an outline of things to look for. It helped me to have a plan of attack and know I wasn’t supposed to catch everything on the first read through. That I wanted to see big picture stuff then smaller, then line edits. I still don’t love revising but I feel like I have a better handle on it. 🙂

    • Lyra Selene

      It’s definitely a process! I know that in time I will get a handle on it too, but it can feel super discouraging sometimes. :/ Oh well, that’s writing for you!