The other day I saw a conversation about revising and editing where someone responded with “It’s like a garden – you have to prune.” I’m not a gardener, so I wouldn’t have come up with that metaphor on my own, but revision should be a lot more than pruning. Sure, maybe you have to get something under a specific word count, but I’m pretty sure gardeners have more tools than shears.
I try to let anything I’ve drafted sit for a while before I come back to it so I can read it, as much as possible, as a reader instead of as the writer. I know what I meant to say, and I did my best on the first pass, but revision is where I take a step back and see if I actually said it.
And also whether I said it in a way that flows and makes sense.
If you recall my editing stamps, only one of them is “delete.” There are seven more. Plus I keep a pen at hand because, as much as I use the stamps, they don’t quite cover it all.
One of the very first things I look for when I pick a draft back up is whether it makes sense. Is my main argument there, and is it clear? Do the points actually flow from one to the next? Have I actually come out and made my point or do I leave it to be interpreted?
A lot of this is adding words instead of deleting them. Making sure my actual ideas are on the page and don’t get lost in the transition from my nebulous thoughts to concrete words. This can mean slowing down and expanding ideas, as well as adding in transitions or swapping parts of the writing around and then adding transitions.
Even during this first pass, I don’t worry so much about the word count. I’m still trying to make sure that the skeletal structure is solid. Am I making all the necessary points to support my argument? Did I forget an example? Do I need to make sure that, after giving one, I come back and connect it to the main point again?
The important thing at this point centers around reading it as a stranger, at least as much as I can. If I don’t have access to my own innermost thoughts, my past publications, and my internal logic, does it still make sense? Do I provide enough information so that readers can at least see where I’m coming from, if not agree completely?
In a rush, during one of the bad writing days, did I happen to forget to actually mention my point?
Once I’ve gone through, concentrating on organization and flow, I try to let it sit again. There isn’t always time – deadlines loom – but distance is good. Fresh eyes also help you come back to it without thinking that all of it sucks. (You definitely want to be able to see any part that might, in fact, suck, so you can make it better before anyone else sees it, but chances are there are good things, and you want to be sure you don’t accidentally mess them up in the name of revision.)
After I’ve got the solid framework, with everything in order and explained, the pruning can begin. Did I add in too many examples? Are there phrases like “the way in which” that can be axed for a simpler “how”? Do my favorite words crop up too many times?
All of these, though, are more surface-level changes, and that’s why they need to wait. There’s no point in making a paragraph pretty until it’s in the right spot and the proper connections can be made – or until I know it’s staying because yes, it supports the overall argument. Line edits happen after the final chops have been administered, but a lot of work comes before the decision to cut.
I also find it easier to delete after I’ve put in enough work that I don’t want to leave something that doesn’t fit just because I think it sounds cool. It also helps to have a printed copy of the initial draft, both for ease of reading and because, even if I delete it on my screen, it still exists somewhere in case I decide to use it again. On a page covered in red, sure, but it’s there.
If I were a gardener, I’d probably say that revision and editing means filling in the thin spaces in the hedge, and balancing the density of flowers, and making sure the colors coordinate in ways that are pleasing to the eye. There’s probably something to be said about fertilizing and knowing which plants need what kind of care, and how doing something for this one flower would actually kill that one over there. Knowing growing seasons and how to tell a dead branch from a resting one.
I’m not a gardener, but I do know there’s more to it – and more to revising and editing – than pruning.