Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Forward and Backward Revisions

A couple of weeks ago, my friend/writer/teacher, Ellen Slezak, met with me for lunch. She had read the latest draft of my book, and she was kind enough to give me a few tips to finish it off. One of the things she suggested I do was to read through the book one more time and make sure that all of the sentences were flowing. This seems like common sense, right? But, I realized that this was a step in my revision process that I had neglected until now.

I thought about how I had been revising my book. For the most part, my last few drafts involved me reading through sections, identifying problems and then going back to fix those problems. Sometimes, I'd also scan through random sections and cut out words or details that weren't really contributing to the story I was trying to tell.

To me, this revision strategy is a backward movement. I don't mean backward in a bad way, but this revision involves hindsight--reading a section, and then going back into it to fix the problems. There is nothing wrong with backward revision. In fact, I'd argue that much of the time it is essential. But, something that I had been ignoring was the opposite strategy: forward revisions.

Forward revisions involves starting from the beginning of the story, or at the beginning of a long section of the story, and moving through it forwards, fixing things on the fly as you go along. This is what I did in my latest draft, and it really helped me fix the problem Ellen had identified. I started from page 1, and I read through the book quickly, all the way to the end. If something caught me--and awkward sentence or strange grammar--I fixed it quickly, backstepped a good ways, and then continued to race through the book forwards again.

My book was about 65,000 words long when I gave it to Ellen. I felt that it was focused, coherent, and told the story I wanted to tell. I thought is was pretty much done. However, after my forward revision, which did little aside from adding extra words here and there to make transitions work, my book ended up being over 67,000 words. As a result of these extra words, I find that my prose flows much more smoothly from one scene to the next. I also think my voice comes through more clearly.

The key to forward revisions is to go through the book quickly. I think this is an effective way to get natural sentence rhythms flowing again, and it allows you to see the book more as a whole than when you move slowly and dissect each scene. In a similar way that an outline gives you a quick overview of the structure of your story, racing through the prose quickly gives you an overview of the prose style of your story. It's an important last step, one that I had neglected because I was focusing so much on bigger elements of my book. AND, for those of us who fear that we may have lost the original spontaneity of the story by overworking it, I think this forward revision can bring some of that back.

Questions: Do all of you do this sort of fast, forward revision? Do you think it's important? If you don't do this, is there another approach you use for getting those final touches done on your manuscript?

Additional Question: Why didn't I get a MacArthur Genius Grant?


  1. I think it's very important to do this. You need to be able to detach yourself from being the writer of the work and approach it as a reader. It can be very difficult sometimes, but you need to be able to let yourself go and just read the story.

    I'd even advise doing the forward read without making any revisions, except maybe circling something on a hardcopy, then coming back to it later and trying to figure out why you circled it. If it isn't immediately obvious, it probably isn't a critical change, it's just me being extra nit-picky. I mean you being nit-picky. I'm never that way ;-)

  2. wow there couldnt have been better timeing for this post for me!
    I actually revise the same way you do. I was always afriad I wasnt doing it correctly but after doing backwards revision I think I'm going to go through and do forwards revision just to make sure I had caught everything =)

  3. Rick, that's fantastic advice about reading through and circling things, then going back to figure out why.

    Davin: I've already chatted with you about this subject, so you know I've worked this way since I started writing. It's why writing takes me so long. I do this over and over after I've written huge sections of the book, then I do it again when I finish the book.

    One thing I've done once, though, that I'll always do with every draft, is read it out loud. I'm going to do this three times with this draft I'm almost finished with.

    I'm going to have my husband read it out loud to me. I won't make any changes. I'll just circle things as he goes along, and then I'm going to read it out loud to him. Since he will have already heard it, he'll be patient while I figure out changes. The third time I'll read it to myself, whether aloud or just silently reading.

    I should do a post on this when I'm done!

    Thanks for giving us these thoughts. They're excellent ideas for editing and revising. And I'm so glad you finished so quickly! Onward!

  4. How wonderful to be able to sit down w/ a trusted friend and discuss your writing. That is so important.

    And, I backwards revise all the time. I had to with my last novel because it was a mystery so you need to go back and make certain the clues are planted sufficiently.

    Forward revision, backward revision...geeze! I swear they'll come out with side ways revision next week. Anything to keep torturing us :)

  5. Rick, excellent point with the circling. Yes, I think speed is the key, and it making changes is slowing someone down too much, then just making a quick mark is probably the better thing.

    M.D. Hobson, I think the backward revisions are very important. Chances are, you've caught some important elements that needed fixing. Now, the quick forward read-through will just add that final polish to it.

    Michelle, Indeed, your suggestion deserves a post of its own! Reading out loud is a huge help and very important as well. I tend to do that on sections, but I'll admit that I never dedicated an entire large chunk of time to read the entire thing out loud in one go.

    Tess, sideways revisions happen when you print out the page and look at the text from the bottom edge to see if the blurry black images reminds you of anything. That's essential, and you should do it for every page.

  6. I don't think I've ever tried this backwards method, though there are times when I just go back and looked at certain parts again. I think I tend towards the forward approach. It's how I read, so it's how I think.

  7. Yes, Davin, the one time I've read it aloud before, it was on a 14 hour car trip out to California, so it was definitely doable. I'm pretty certain we'll be reading it over the course of a few nights this time around.

  8. Davin, I agree with doing both backward and forward revisions. During the editing/revision process it is just too easy to forget that, while the detail is important, so is the big picture.

    The best revision of my book came after a long layoff. I sat and read it again as a novel, not as if I was doing a set of revision. This reconnected me to the "big picture" of my story and helped me tie up a few loose ends and (amazingly) pick up even more typos when I was convinced I didn't have a single typo left!

  9. My revision process is a combination of forward/backward editing. As Michelle often and wisely suggests, I edit in layers, with a specific intent for each pass through the ms. Sometimes I do go and work on a specific scene (backwards revisions), but most of the time I start at the beginning and read more or less like I'm a sieve; I read it in order and only change things if something gets "stuck" in the sieve.

    Once I finish typing up my latest round of changes (by this weekend, I hope) I'm going to print out a fresh copy, have Mighty Reader look at it, and then read it once more myself, just to see if it all flows (and to see if I've introduced any errors in my revisions).

    I think that reading purely for flow, as Ellen suggested, is a must. Sometimes I will write a passage that's really just a summary of what I intend and I don't realize, until this forward revision for flow stage, that it needs to be expanded to fit the voice/tone of the book.

  10. "But, I realized that this was a step in my revision process that I had neglected until now."

    --I really find that hard to believe. Maybe you're just not consciously aware of having done it because it's become so automatic? In my opinion at least, not everything about writing can be deconstructed or should be deconstructed. But if you really haven't done revision run-throughs, how did your long stories not come out disjointed?

    Most of my revisions are run-throughs (though some of them are slow ones); maybe this is why one of the most common compliments I've received is that my writing's a very smooth read. I've said here several times about my "wholistic" writing involving looking at novels especially as wholes and not as parts. Readers will mostly be reading narratives from beginning to ending, so writers should mostly be writing narratives from beginning to ending.

    I try to keep my revising process quite close to the reader's reading process so the logic of the narrative winds up correct. I don't like when readers are confused. And if I'm confused while writing, probably they will be confused while reading! Confusion in the writer, confusion in the reader--Robert Frost said that (not exactly lol).

  11. F.P.: I've read "The Order Of Things" (do I have the title right? I'm lousy with titles) and I agree that your prose has a nice flow to it; it's very pleasant to read. As is Davin's prose.

    You're right that we can't make the entire process of writing into a step-by-step method, but I do think we can train ourselves to have good habits that become second-nature and improve our work. Writing is an art, and the art part of creation is forever going to be a mystery (I hope), but there's also the craft of writing, and I don't think it hurts our art to talk about that side of the process.

    Certainly you're right that readers approach novels as wholes, and experience them in linear order. But when I think of my own stories, there's a way of seeing them that I have that more approaches the way a sculptor circles around a piece of marble, smoothing and chiseling away here and there until the whole thing is balanced. I don't know if that's part of the art or part of the craft.

  12. Dominique, that makes a lot of sense! I think it's hard to always be seeing your project from the point of view of a reader--at least it's hard for me.

    Ann, yes, the long break was helpful for me too. I hadn't read the whole thing through in several months. I had just felt too tired. But, thinking of it as a new revision process was helpful.

    Scott, very well said. That's funny that you think of yourself as a sieve. I have a similar image! I'm a crochet hook and as I'm being dragged over the material of my book, I feel like I get snagged on some bad lines. No one gets that when I try to describe it to them.

    F. P., Thanks for your comments. Honestly, I had neglected this, and I think in a way, my story is disjointed. That disjointedness is also a reflection of how I worked though. Meaning, I accounted for my lack of continuity by having short chapters and changes in point of view. So, I guess I subconsciously adapted my writing style to overcome this missing part of revision. Your writing DOES indeed flow very well.

  13. Wonderful tip. In critique groups, I like it when someone gives me the whole manuscript to read. It's a far different experience than piecemeal. In my own work, I fear I overwork lines and take the flow away without noticing. Let's play it forward!

  14. I'd been having trouble posting here so I put my post on my place; it's long anyway.

    But it seems I couldn't sign in here directly--I kept getting an error message from Blogger. However, if I'm already signed in, as I am now, I can post. Don't know if anyone else has been having this problem (?). If so, sign in on the Blogger bars above blogs, then click into where you want to comment; then you should be okay, in my experience at least....

  15. That's a great way to do it. I like to do this kind of revision. It's the best way for the writer to duplicate the reader's experience. We need to do it to make sure the story flows and makes sense as it unfolds.

  16. Tricia, I agree that it is a MUCH different experience to get the whole story. At the same time, it's also a huge time commitment to offer such a large critique. I really appreciate whenever anyone is able to do that.

    F.P., Thanks for the message. I don't know if anyone else is having trouble with this or not. I was able to sign in using the post. I'll read your comment on your blog.

    Lois, Yes. Sometimes it's so hard to be able to see your own story from the eyes of a reader. I know I'm so familiar with my book at this point that it's nearly impossible. When I first started to write, my goal was to write a story that I would enjoy reading. Now, I'm wondering if that will ever be possible. Maybe if I don't look at a story for a very long time, I can "reset" my view of it again.

  17. Great tip and something I *try* to do. I start reading quickly, but when I hit a snag I spend so much time fixing the flow (or whatever isn't working) that the "quick" read bogs down and loses its momentum. I think setting the ms aside before this task would help.

  18. I really like this idea. I've been editing my novel, cutting, changing, writing new bits I do feel like I've lost the "heart". Fast forwarding through it sounds like a great plan to see if it still reads.

    Thanks :)

  19. The flow of writing is sooo important. I think I tend to be a fast reviser. I might ponder a problem for a while, but I don't agonize whilst actually revising. First instincts are often the best.


  20. I'm a slow writer too. Maybe because I analyze things too much. But I do the backwards thing quite a bit. I'll just pick a spot in the novel, look at every aspect of it, and try to make it stand mostly on it own.

    If I find myself saying too often: but I already told the reader that, then I know I need to revise some more. Not go into entire recap of a previous scene, but definitely make it so if the reader didn't have to go back and re-read to make sure they're understanding all the concepts.

    This also helps because I've read the novel so often, I read it as I envision it, not always what it says specifically. I haven't read the whole thing aloud, but I do find sometimes it helps to read parts I'm specifically working on so I have to read the words exactly as I've written them.

    It's nice to know others are using the same editing techniques I am.


  21. Thanks for the backwards revision instructions David. I was having so much trouble up until I read this, I stopped what I was doing and tried it your way, and I can't BELIEVE what a tremendous difference it has made in my revisions. Thank you.


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