14 January 2017

Revision: Murder by Pencil

"Murder your darlings"--that may be the most famous piece of advice about revision, one that's been attributed to just about everybody but really, apparently, originated with Arthur Quiller-Couch, a British writer and critic born in 1863. I think it became famous because it so vividly sums up two facts almost all writers instantly recognize as true:
  • Revision is mandatory.
  • Revision hurts like hell.
We labor so hard to bring our words into this world that sending any of them back into the void feels wrong. It feels like murder--a kind of murder even mystery writers don't enjoy. And according to Quiller-Couch, the words we labor over hardest, the ones we love best, are probably the ones we most need to obliterate. How can we force ourselves to be as pitiless as we know we need to be? Is there any way to make the process less painful?

Several years ago, I ran into two essays that transformed the way I revise. Both had been around for decades, but I hadn't encountered them before. (They were in a prose anthology I used in a first-year composition course I was teaching. I chose the anthology because I hoped it would help students improve their writing. If it helped them half as much as it helped me, it was a good choice.) While both essays contain many valuable insights about writing, they've made a difference for me primarily because each recommends one specific technique that has helped me murder my darlings more efficiently.

The first essay is Donald M. Murray's "The Maker's Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts," published in 1973 and available online here. Murray first discusses the early stages of revision when most writers, he says, focus on "the larger problems of subject and form." Then he discusses the stage when writers move "closer and closer to the page," working through the manuscript sentence by sentence, sweating to make every word right. At this stage, Murray finds it best to work "in short runs, no more than fifteen minutes at a stretch." If he tries to keep going longer than that, he says, "I become too kind with myself. I begin to see what I hope is on the page, not what is actually on the page."

At first, this approach sounded strange to me--it seemed too fragmented--but I gave it a try. It works. Now, when I reach the final stage of revision, I set a timer for fifteen minutes (or usually, to be honest, thirty) and start working. I'm alert, I'm focused on revision, and I'm determined to find ways to make improvements. When the timer goes off, I take a ten-minute break. I put in a load of laundry or do some other household chore, I respond to an e-mail, or I read a chapter of someone else's book. Sometimes I exercise (I should do that more often), and sometimes I fix a snack (I should do that less often). When the break is over, I attack the manuscript with renewed alertness, focus, and determination.

I think this approach helps me revise more effectively; I know it makes me more ruthless. When I try to revise without taking breaks, it's too easy to slip out of revising mode and into reading mode. I start enjoying the characters and smiling at the dialogue. After all, I created this manuscript--it's natural for me to love it. But if I want other people to love it, too, I can't afford to go easy on it. I have to scrutinize it critically and be prepared to murder any little darlings that aren't as good as I'd like to think they are. Revising in short runs helps.

The other essay is William Zinsser's "The Act of Writing: One Man's Method," written in 1983. (If he'd written it more recently, he probably would have called it "One Person's Method.") Again, there's lots of good advice about revision in general, one specific technique that stands out for me. When he was teaching writing at Yale, Zinsser says, he would read through students' essays and "put brackets around every component . . . that I didn't think was doing some kind of work." The "component" might be a single word, such as "the adverb whose meaning is already in the verb (blare loudly, clench tightly)," or it might be an entire sentence that "essentially repeats what the previous sentence has said." "Most people's writing," Zinsser says, "is littered with phrases that do no work whatever. Most first drafts, in fact, can be cut by fifty percent without losing anything organic."

I don't know exactly why the brackets work so well, but they do. When I'm reasonably satisfied with the content and general shape of a manuscript, I print a hard copy and go through it again, looking for words, phrases, sentences, and--who knows?--whole paragraphs I might be able to cut. I always use a pencil, not a pen. That way, any hasty decisions I make while revising can easily be reversed, anything I cut can readily be restored. Sometimes, I can cross things out immediately, confident they aren't doing "some kind of work" and will never be missed. Often, though, I hesitate. Okay, so maybe that phrase isn't strictly necessary, but I like it--it's a darling--and I hate to cut it. So I put it in brackets and move on, postponing the final, painful decision. Later, when I go back and see a page studded with half a dozen or more bracketed words, phrases, and sentences, I realize how much tighter and sharper the page can be if I find the courage to make the cuts. Usually, I grit my teeth and cross out everything in brackets, and the page snaps into shape.

Maybe it's easier to murder our darlings if we do it in stages. We put a component on trial by bracketing it, we later weigh all the evidence about the page or the chapter as a whole before reaching a verdict, and only then do we convict and execute. And when I look back at a page and see only a few brackets, I know I've slipped into reading mode and haven't been ruthless enough. It's time to take a break, and to come back in ten minutes determined to find more suspects to put on trial.

You could also, I'm sure, type the brackets, or highlight possibly superfluous components, or find some other way to use this technique without printing a hard copy. For me, though, for revision, a hard copy and a pencil work best. Maybe that's because I'm a dinosaur who wrote her first manuscripts on yellow pads and manual typewriters. Or maybe there's a real advantage to getting physically closer to our manuscripts during the last stages of writing, to having our hands travel over our words as we make our final decisions about their fates--which ones to keep, which ones to change, which ones to murder.

I do know these two techniques have made a difference for me, and that's taught me another lesson. Before I read these essays, I'd been writing for decades, teaching writing for decades. I considered myself an expert on the writing process, and I thought my own process was set. These essays proved me wrong. We never know enough about writing. No matter how experienced we are, we can still learn from what other writers have to say. Some of the books and essays we read will simply repeat things we already know, and some we'll reject as just plain wrong. Once in a while, though, if we keep reading, we'll find valuable new insights, ones that might even make us revise our approach to revision.

How do you approach revision? Can you recommend techniques that have worked for you? 

# # #

Last year, the day before I planned to leave for Malice Domestic, I tripped on a stupid throw rug, fell, broke my right arm, injured my left leg, and ended up going to the emergency room rather than to Bethesda. I've gotten rid of the throw rug, and of every other throw rug in the house, and hope to make it all the way to the conference this year--but I've learned not to take anything for granted. If you're also planning to go to Malice and haven't yet completed your Agatha nominating ballot, please consider "The Last Blue Glass," a short story that appeared in the April, 2016 Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. You can read it here. (Even if you aren't going to Malice, you might enjoy the story. I worked hard on revising it.)


  1. These are great revision tips, Bonnie--the kind of detailed work (and often such laborious work) that's necessary there at the end. I haven't read these particular essays, but appreciate you introducing them and these specific techniques, which I've not used specifically but which makes lots of sense. I've felt that too, where revision become simple re-reading, and it's a danger indeed. In my case, I often just reread again and again and again looking for what I missed before, but this sounds much more efficient. Really useful suggestions.

    As I mentioned (I think) in my post about the residency Tara and I attended, I recently went through a long manuscript (16,000 words) and cut more than 4000 of them by folding and trimming and folding and trimming--trying to make the approach that you're talking about here: what's working, what's not doing work, what's a useless sentence or phrase or word. The pages I'd printed were covered in red marks where nearly every sentence (if the full sentence were indeed kept) was trimmed at various points. I know the revision ended up being more streamlined and stronger because of it--at least I hope, because it was several days of hard work!

    And finally, thanks for sharing "The Last Blue Glass." I read in the magazine itself and hope that others will read here. A fascinating story that deftly covers a lot of time (always a trick!) while keeping a strong momentum--and an unexpected twist at the end for sure. Congratulations! And good luck ahead, of course. :-)

  2. A good piece!

    One thing that helps me to whack out big chunks of work is to save them in a separate outtakes file. That way it there's some prose I love but that isn't working at the moment, I can get rid of it but still save it for later possible use.

  3. After my silly blog yesterday, it's good to read a well-thought, well-written blog. Thanks.

  4. Art, Janice, O'Neil, thank you for your comments. Art, when I revise a manuscript, I'm sometimes embarrassed by how much I can cut--I wonder how I managed to be so wordy the first time through. A few times, I've cut the number of words almost by half--a humbling experience. My biggest problem, I've found, is redundancy: If I repeat the same words, that's easy to spot (and repeating a word or phrase is sometimes good for clarity or emphasis); but I can repeat the same idea in different words and never know it unless I use brackets or some other technique. And thanks for your kind words about "The Last Blue Glass." I was nervous about trying to cover such a long time period in a short story but decided to give it a shot. Janice, I sometimes keep an outtakes file, too, especially when working on a longer project. It's like using brackets--it doesn't feel as final as simply deleting the words, since one can always put them back. (But I don't think I've actually ever put them back, or found a place for them in another manuscript--still, it's comforting to know they're still around if I change my mind.) O'Neil, I appreciate your kind words, but there's always a place for humor, too--and I too have been known to rant from time to time.

  5. Hi BK - I came to fiction from comedy writing, where every word counted. So I tend to write very very lean. My way: every day when I start anew, I read over what I've written before. So I'm revising constantly. By the time I write the last chapter, I don't have much revising to do. So I find it interesting when people saying they're working on their 3rd revision. Or they've finally finished their first draft. My first full draft has been revised at least 20 times.
    I know this doesn't work for everyone, and it could be a comedy-writer technique. But wanted to tell you I was cheering at your last para. We are ALWAYS learning. I tell my class that for experienced writers, reading is our professional development. I learn from other writers.

  6. One of the ironies of all of this is that when you have successfully eliminated every word that you can from a story, and you then submit it, if your story is accepted for publication you will invariably be paid . . . by the word.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Melodie. I sometimes start by revising what I wrote the day before, too. Among other things, it's a good way of warming up for fresh writing, except that I'm sometimes so unhappy with what I wrote the day before that I spend all my time revising and never get around to writing something new. So sometimes I have to force myself to stop fiddling around and just push ahead and finish the draft. As for writing long and writing lean--my husband and I met in college and often read and commented on each other's essay drafts. Mine were always longer than they were supposed to be, and his were always shorter. He'd develop ideas in considerable depth but still not make the minimum word limit--a professor once told him he had to learn to be less concise. And I always had to cut, cut, cut. We often joked that our children were bound to be perfectly balanced and always be right on target with length requirements. (It didn't exactly work out that way.) And yes, I learn a lot from what other writers say about writing. Teaching writing helped, too--recognizing problems in students' writing helped me see problems with my own.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Dale. I've sometimes thought about that as I'm revising--oh, no! I just cut another four cents from my check! But I make the cuts anyway, figuring that unless I make the manuscript as tight as I can, it probably won't get accepted at all. (I've read that Dickens sometimes padded manuscripts when he was writing for magazines that published his novels in serial form, precisely because he was paid by the word. I don't know if that story's true, but sometimes when I'm reading Dickens--much as I love his work--I wonder if he occasionally stretched things out because he needed extra cash that month.)

  9. My process is similar to Melodie's. I love to write flash fiction & have trouble getting to a minimum word count!

  10. Revision is such a bug-a-boo. The only way I can conquer it is to revisit the pages I typed yesterday and revise those before I go on. I especially like with your "slip into reading mode," but I think that's kind of a good thing. To me, it means you've written an engaging story. Marilyn (aka cj petterson)

  11. Those ideas would have been useful for when I was teaching high school students to write.
    I did suggest breaks for studying, and my high school teacher's suggestion to write a draft and put it in a drawer for two days before revising.
    Be careful! If you have to go out in slippery weather, walk like a penguin. <3

  12. Elizabeth, Marilyn, and Mary, thanks for your comments. Elizabeth, I sometimes write flash fiction, too, but my first drafts are always too long. Cutting them down so that I can get them under the word limit has often been educational for me--I usually start by thinking I can't possibly cut that much, but I usually find that I can. Marilyn, I see what you're saying--if we aren't charmed by our own writing, who will be? Even so, I find that I have to find ways to stay critical if I want to revise successfully. Mary, I agree with your high-school teacher. Putting a draft aside for a while before beginning to revise is an excellent idea. I think it can make us more objective--never an easy task when we're trying to spot problems with our own writing.


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