A Great Tool for Revision – from John Dos Passos
Here’s a great way to change the way you look at a draft and improve it through revision.
Sometimes improving your writing all comes down to a matter of perspective. This one comes from John Dos Passos, author of The USA Trilogy. Perhaps he’s a bit forgotten these days, but in the mid-Twentieth Century, he showed a lot about America.
In revision, you might start out looking at your use of language. If a word or a phrase doesn’t work, you’re quick to take it out. But look at these as small pieces. How much does each change of this nature improve the draft?
Dos Passos said, the best way to tell the quality of your own work, is by judging the quality of the pieces you’ve taken out.
What do you think?
First off, this makes your job much easier: likely you have many fewer cuts than you do written words. So it’s easy to judge what’s there. Not much. Keep going.
When I start editing a draft, I first take out the easiest stuff– what’s clearly the real garbage. How’s the overall piece then? Well, still rated as garbage. Keep going.
I have to take out more writing. The more critical I get of my own work, the better the quality of the pieces I’ve taken out. Maybe I realize a metaphor I love doesn’t work. Or I trim my dialogue, I cut paragraphs of unnecessary interior thought.
Finally, I get to a point where I’m actually taking out something that’s good.
Now my story can be considered good. Or better! This is hard to do, but it’s what I need to get to where what’s left is capable of being excellent.
I might realize a whole scene, even one I love, is not actually forwarding the story. Maybe a decision isn’t consistent with the character. Ultimately, I have to take these out. Now… now, I’m getting to the point where what’s left is only the good pieces, the pieces that are even better. Do I dare to say some of them are excellent?
Well, let’s see. THAT might be an evaluation of my own work that’s hard for me to reach. And it’s really the point: that I’ve found a way to be critical and clear about the quality of what I have. Isn’t that what we want? A way to clearly know what I have on the page? I know it’s elusive for me. So this is a tool I can use to find it.