The road toward revision…such nightmarish loveliness

What the first copy of my thesis looked like many moons ago.

You hear those crickets? Yes, that’s the sound of nothing happening on this blog. And why? Because I was working on my thesis. And not just working on it, finishing it!

Yes, the first draft of my thesis for my MFA program is complete and is making its way toward my advisor and second reader’s homes as we speak.

Now that I have some free time (I still have six books to read, five annotations, and a 10-15 page essay to crank out) I wanted to take this time to give some revising tips. Though these tips are aimed specifically for those in my MFA program, every writer can use these lessons to their advantage. Seriously, revision is revision and we all have to do it. As one advisor said to me, “revision is a pleasure.” It is. And sometimes it’s about as pleasurable as a root canal. But I digress since I actually do like revision. So let’s start.

1) Just finish the darn thing.
If you’re in a low residency program like the one at Goddard College and have to turn in something in your fourth semester of publishable quality, finish the thesis first. In fact, finish that darn thing before the residency of your fourth (and hopefully final) semester. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Hemingway isn’t reading it. Just finish it. You can’t revise something that doesn’t exist.

If you’re not in an MFA program, same thing. Finish it.

2) Walk away.
Yes, I understand you are elated about step one. Congratulations! You are in no way done with this monster you have just created. But let it breathe. You will want to go back and start tinkering with it. Don’t do that. Stop it. It’s like the boyfriend/girlfriend that you love but are kinda tried of so you need a break. Take a break from your boyfriend/girlfriend.

3) And while you’re taking your break…
Get into the revision mindset. Workout. Read books. Watch reruns of Friends. But mostly read books. For me it was helpful to read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. More than just a grammar type book, it’s a craft book on writing clarity. Listen, if you’re a writer worth anything you know every rule in this book. Hell, you’ve broken every rule in this book. Probably twice! But reading it once in a while reminds you of the epic fail festering in your prose. This book puts everything in perspective for you and gets you in the mind frame to go back into the work and make it sing. I also recommend Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. (These two books need to be in your reference library anyway. Right next to the dictionary.)

4.) Also read…
An honest to goodness novel. If you’re in an MFA program, you’ve been doing this the entire time. But you’re about swim in a sea of words without any order and reason (maybe). Read something that does have some reason and rhythm to it. May I suggest something with the tone you want to achieve in your novel/thesis. Another advisor said to me she would read books that were like a playlist for her novel. So if she’s working on something gritty and mysterious some Raymond Chandler would make it to her night stand. Or if she’s coming upon something symbolic in her prose, Barbara Kingsolver would be read.

5) So it starts
Now you’re ready to start revising but don’t go in there without a plan of action. For MFA students, time will dictate the action plan. For those without such a tight deadline, you will have a lax process. Note how much time you have until the thesis has to be in the mail, MFA students. Then work backwards, giving yourself some time to revise JUST for grammar. Nothing will irritate you more than getting notes back with a notation on grammar. If you’re anything like me, you write first and don’t focus on grammar until the end. This is the end. Focus part of your time on grammar. Also, think about how many drafts you want to get in before you mail off the thesis. I wanted three. There was no time for three, so I adjusted accordingly.

6.) Print it out.
DO NOT EDIT ON THE SCREEN ALONE. Your eyes will become tired. You will miss something. Print it out, take out a pencil, and have at it.

Remember when I said decide how many drafts you’ll have? That’s because each draft will be to read for a specific item. For example, draft one can be read for just story arc. I suggest this first because if there are holes that need to be filled, you will have time to fill them. Draft two can be ready for imagery, dialogue, etc. Draft three can be read for word usage and precision, etc. The goal is to go from macro to micro.

TIP: Something that helped me was after reading for story arc, I went back and read things out of order. I was able to focus on words better, some foreshadowing, and redundancies. I also tried reading the chapters backwards, sentence by sentence.

7.) Keep reading
There will be a point where you will be overwhelmed. This sense of blah will come over you and you will want to quit. DON’T. Set the thesis aside for at least a day. Pull out that book you’re reading. Lose yourself in that prose. Then go out with some friends who by know think that you are dead because they haven’t seen you since you started down this rabbit hole. Then sleep. Eat. Workout. Shower. Watch whatever ridiculousness is on the telly. Then come back to the thesis fresh.

You have to remember that this process is a marathon, not a sprint. So if one day you don’t feel like looking at the thesis, don’t. If you want to sleep in instead of working, then sleep in. The goal is to no burn completely out cause if you do, you’re useless.

8.) The last week.
By now you’ve done a couple of drafts and you’re nervous. You’re looking at the calendar and you think, “how am I suppose to get everything done I want done!”

Sit down and let me break this down for you–YOU ARE NOT GOING TO GET IT ALL DONE. There. I said it. Calm down. This, my friends, is a “first draft”. You want this perfect but it’s not going to be perfect.

So in your last week think about what little things you can fix. I’m not a fan about writing anything new the last week. Small things okay, but whole scenes…nah. New chapters? Forget it. Others may think differently, however. For me, writing a final scene that last week wouldn’t have given me enough time to tweak it and give it breathing room. So think smaller — grammar, formatting, spelling, mechanics, etc. You will already be stressed so doing the smaller things will help keep the stress from bubbling up. But as you tweak this last week, give yourself a cut off deadline. For example, tell yourself “I will be done and will stop looking at this sucker by 2 p.m. Friday.” After all, you do need to print two copies and mail them off.

9.) Celebrate cautiously
You are done! Kinda. Now, it’s the waiting part, which is (since I’m currently waiting) the worst part. I want to know what my advisor and second reader think. I want their notes in my hot little hands and I want to start working on “draft two”, which is due before Thanksgiving.

Stop doing that. Go out and celebrate because essentially you wrote a book, kinda (Thesis and book are different. I’ll get into that in another post.) Also, you still have those pesky annotations, the process paper, and other array of stuff to write. Keep your head in the game. You’re close but not quite there yet.

But do celebrate! It is quite an achievement!

If you’re not in an MFA program, then you actually did write a book. Might I suggest you get someone else to read it now. Let them have a crack at it and have them give you notes.

10.) Is it too early for a draft two strategy?
I don’t know yet since I’m still on number nine. I’ll get back to you on that.

So there is it. My advice to MFA-ers and non MFA-ers. This is what I did during my revision process for the most part. It was quite a ride with the limited time I had but the goal is to stay focused. Revise line by line, page by page, chapter by chapter. Slow and steady wins the race…or something like that.

Happy revision!

This is what it looked like before I sent it.
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