The Vision in Nonfiction Revision
Michael Crichton famously said (although he wasn’t the first to say it), “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten.” This idea that a piece of writing becomes the best version of itself, maybe even a new version of itself, in the process of revision is as true for blog posts as it is for bestsellers. In this post, I’m going to apply that principle to nonfiction revision.
Rather than finishing your first draft, tinkering around the edges a bit, obsessing over a passage or two, and calling it done, here are some suggestions that can turn a good piece of writing into a great piece. You’ll still need to check your commas, fix awkward syntax, and make the usual edits—but there’s no use in polishing a sentence to a shine if you’re just going to cut it.
Once you’ve completed a draft on your computer, print it out. Seeing your writing on paper will give you a fresh impression of it. Now you’re ready to start the process of revising your work. I advise you to take these steps.
1-Put it away
Author Neil Gaiman said, “The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. When you’re ready…read it as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” So, stick it in a drawer, drag it off your desktop, or do whatever you need to do to get your eyes off of it for a while—24 hours if possible. It doesn’t take long for the moss to begin to grow on a draft and for typos, confusing sentence structure, and content holes to become apparent.
2-Ask yourself if what you’re writing is of consequence
You should always be wondering what’s at stake for your reader and how you can be the critical connection between your reader’s desire for information, entertainment, or personal growth, and the fulfillment of that desire. Go through your draft point by point and ask, “So what?” Ask yourself what the implications are for the information you’re presenting and make sure you aren’t leaving important questions unanswered in your reader’s mind.
3-Ask yourself if you’ve taken a risk
Sometimes we’re so concerned with pleasing every reader that we write pieces that don’t interest anyone. Not every article or blog post is going to be (or needs to be) groundbreaking, but ask yourself what you might do in the piece to challenge popular opinion or help the reader gain a new perspective. Are you addressing unusual subject matter? If not, could you address your usual subject matter in an unusual way?
4-Read the final line first
Have you ended where you aimed to end? Now reread the entire piece with an awareness of the approaching final line. Do you need to nudge the ending toward a clearer point or an intended emotional resonance? Did you move your reader from here to there? Make sure your reader won’t be expecting a different ending because you created a false expectation earlier in the piece.
5-Check your tone
Readers don’t only care about what you’re saying, they care about how you feel about what you’re saying. The tone and voice convey your attitude about your subject matter. One of the first questions a reader asks (consciously or not) is why was this written? Like a person’s mood, tone can be hard to discern. Make sure you establish it in the first sentence through your word choice and syntax.
6-Read it aloud
Reading a piece aloud is always the last thing you should do before you call it done. Here is where the typos that have been sitting under your nose the whole time will finally appear. This is when those sneaky homophones will present themselves. Reading aloud will allow you to stumble over the awkward sentence before your reader does. But most importantly, reading aloud will allow you to locate places where your writing doesn’t ring true—where it doesn’t sound like your voice or doesn’t quite convey what you’re trying to communicate to your reader. When we say something aloud to others, if we don’t say what we’ve intended or we get it wrong, it’s hard to go back and fix it. But when we’re writing, we can go over and over our words until we get them right.
It’s an extra step in nonfiction revision to really reimagine what you’ve written, but this is the step in which many writers really find the gold in what they’re trying to say.
Previously published in Attorney at Work, reprinted with permission