Storytelling: Revise

Posted on June 15, 2011


Storytelling can take a lot of forms. This blog entry focuses on written ones, but if you plan your spoken forms ahead, it can apply to your stories, too.

Editing isn’t Revision

I see a difference between revision and editing. When I edit, I’m checking spelling and grammar. I’m trimming words in general. I’m tightening dialogue. I’m shortening sentences. I’m replacing boring words with more interesting, specific, and appropriate ones. That’s editing.

Revision is when I have to rethink a character or some action in a plot.


Sometimes that’s because I’m dissatisfied with a story element. For example, I might write 1000 words and then realize that my main character has become a spectator in her own story. She’s lost any sense of agency. Then I would go back through my story and look for the moment when she could have acted, in character, but didn’t.

In that case, revision is frustrating, but not painful. I know that I’m retreading old ground instead of advancing my word count. I also know that the story is moving to a better place, and that new words will come quickly.

The Ego Wall

Other times it’s because reader feedback encouraged me to revise. For example, a reader might point out that my character does whatever the plot requires her to do, and thus lacks any sense of individual identity. I need to set some ground rules for my creation.

In those cases, revision sucks. No offense to any first reader. It’s just the nature of the beast. I need your feedback. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know what’s in my head doesn’t always make it to the page. You spot that and tell me where I’m confusing you. That’s important.

No, what’s hard is sharing my creation. The characters and plot come solely from my imagination and my vision, up to the moment when I use your feedback. I have to break through the wall of my own ego, and that’s painful.


When I was a boy in school, I saw one-page articles by famous authors talking about writing. I remember Harlan Ellison wrote about starting stories with action (later, I read the essay that he wrote for adults, recommending that stories start at the moment a brick comes through a window). I remember the picture of Kurt Vonnegut clutching a pen in one hand and brandishing paper in the other, grimacing at the camera, at the top of his article on editing and revising. He advised writers to be brutal with their work, hacking out any words that didn’t advance the story or develop the characters.

Brutalize Yourself

Be tough on yourself when you revise. If you like a particular turn of phrase but it serves no purpose, cut it out and save it in a scrapbook document so you can come back to it later. You may find a use for it in another story.


I once read a writer’s technique where she started her day with warm-ups. There weren’t any blogs back then, but she wrote in a journal and answered correspondence as warm-ups. Then she did a quick pass through the previous day’s work before starting anything new. I tried that. I found that I got so bogged down in editing and revising the previous work that I exhausted myself before getting to the new stuff.


For me, National Novel Writing Month put the final nail in method’s coffin. I had to write 1,667 words each day to “win.” I couldn’t waste time editing or revising. I had to produce new words every day. Afterward, reading what I got on paper, I saw clear need for revision. The story had grown and changed over the month of writing, and later parts contradicted parts in the beginning. That’s fine. That’s what revision can fix.

It’s also why you should seriously consider outlining before you start writing. I wish I had, and I think I will this year.


Is there some lesson about storytelling that stuck with you for years? Is there a technique you learned from another storyteller that didn’t match your style? Share it in the comments, please.

Posted in: Self-Reference