On Friday, May 8, we focused on revising using a multi-layered approach I playfully call “Miss AnnMarie’s Thirteen Steps to a Perfect Final Draft.” Is any final draft ever perfect? I don’t know… but if you follow these steps you WILL get about as close to perfect as is possible for you, at the stage of your writing that you are in right now.
Miss AnnMarie’s Thirteen Steps to a Perfect Final Draft
1. Let it cool. Give yourself some time away from the piece. During this time, you can work on another project, but you have to leave that draft ALONE. It’s very difficult to edit a draft when you still feel like you are living in that world. You need space in order to be objective.
2. Now print out your story and read it all the way through, from beginning to end, with fresh eyes. Be tough. Ask yourself the hard questions, like: “Is this a story that readers will want to keep reading? Is there enough conflict to keep a person interested in the plot? Are there enough difficult decisions to keep a person interested in the protagonist’s character?” Write down any questions or thoughts that come to your mind. Work on adding anything to your story that you think is missing.
3. When you’re satisfied that there is enough conflict and excitement in your story, read it again, and look for any characters or scenes that just aren’t necessary in the story. When doing this layer, you have to look at your whole draft, always keeping your ending in mind. Everything in your story should flow toward that ending like a river to the sea. Is there anything—characters or scenes–that does not further the progression of your story from beginning to ending? Take a deep breath, and say goodbye to the things you don’t need.
4. It’s time to reread using the maxim “Show, Don’t Tell.” Look for anything that you are telling or describing when perhaps you ought to be letting it play out dramatically for the reader instead. Read plays or movie scripts for inspiration. Close your eyes and try to imagine your story playing in your mind like a movie. What does the scene look like? Try to remove any background information that could be shown dramatically. You never want to tell the reader things about your characters that, with a little bit of suggestion, the reader could easily figure out on his own.
5. Now read your draft again to see if there are any written passages that might take away from the reader’s enjoyment of your story. This includes: prose that is too “writerly,” that doesn’t sound like the narrator’s voice and becomes the “author’s” voice, and paragraphs that sound like you’re trying to lecture the reader about your opinion. Your story should flow like a “continuous dream” (John Gardner, novelist and critic). Nothing in your writing should stick out like a sore thumb or get in the way of your reader just losing herself in your exciting plot and characters. Don’t interject your personal opinions where they are not needed. Your plot and your characters should stand alone to be appreciated by the reader just as they are.
6. Now read your draft out loud and focus on what you hear. Focus on the dialogue. Do your characters’ words sound realistic, considering who your characters are and what their situation is? Do they further the plot? Do your characters talk about unimportant things? Does the conversation flow naturally? Do your characters have trouble “getting to the point”?
7. Do a careful, close read of your story to see if there are any errors in continuity. Again, your story should be a “continuous dream.” Think about the last time you saw a movie or TV show and noticed that there was a car parked on the street nearby and suddenly it’s gone… You probably laughed at what a fool the director was. But remember that you’re just as likely to make mistakes like that in your writing. So look for anything that “haters” would make fun of so that you can catch it before the haters do!
8. Now read your draft with an eye for anything that you’re not completely sure you got correct or accurate. This is another thing you have to do or else the “haters” will get you for it. This is really hard and you may want the help of one or two readers you can trust. You want to make sure that you haven’t made any assumptions about society or nature or science or people or animals that are incorrect and easily disputed. If your story has a dog in it, give it to a dog owner to make sure the dog’s behavior sounds realistic. If your story is about a person from another culture, give it to someone familiar with that culture. If your story takes place in outer space, give it to someone familiar with science and physics so that they can make sure your scenes are plausible.
9. BREAK. You have done a lot of work on your story. It’s time to take another cooling-off break. You know at this point that your story is basically exciting enough, interesting enough, and there’s nothing glaringly inaccurate or inconsistent. Give yourself a break so that you can have fresh eyes for looking at the tiny details.
During this break, you are to read at least twenty different poems and at least three short stories. Try to read them aloud if possible. Immerse yourself in other writers’ language. Listen for the lyricism of their writing. This is the time to read “award-winning” authors—universally acknowledged good writers, not beginners. Let these master craftsmen sink into your subconscious so that you will internalize their wisdom.
10. Once you’re ready, and you’ve gotten some new distance from your recently-revised story, think about the poems and stories you read during your break. Read your draft with an eye for imagery and sensory detail. Are you painting a vivid picture with your words? Are you conveying the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feels of your settings? Are you making the reader feel like she’s THERE?
11. Read with an ear for the diction. Diction is, quite simply, your choice of words. Is your writing beautiful? This is the time to get out a thesaurus and look up some of your most common words and phrases to see if you can find a new way of expressing the same thing. Take out any cliché similes, metaphors or idiomatic expressions. If you’ve heard an expression somewhere before, it does NOT belong in your writing (unless you’re saying something new or important about that expression). With every sentence, ask yourself, “Is there a better way of saying this?” Also, it’s very important at this point that you start to recognize if there are certain words or punctuation you have a tendency to use too often. You may need a trusted reader’s help for this.
12. Read your draft again and check for grammar or spelling errors. Read your story like a copy editor, just paying strict attention to the words on the page. Look up any words you aren’t sure about. DON’T TRUST MICROSOFT WORD SPELL CHECK! If you’re not a great speller, find someone who is and ask them to look at it. Also, highlight every single instance of the passive voice and try to change it to active voice. What is passive and active voice?
The forest fire destroyed the whole suburb. (active)
The whole suburb was destroyed by the forest fire. (passive)
Beautiful giraffes roam the savannah. (active)
The savannah is roamed by beautiful giraffes. (passive)
13. Now it’s time to seek a few different people’s honest opinions of your story. It’s best if you find people who actually read stuff in the genre that you’re writing. You have already done the work making your story the best you could on your own. Time to see if there’s anything you’ve missed.
The most important thing here is to respect your readers’ opinions and DON’T ARGUE. You don’t have to take all their suggestions or follow all their advice. Nobody knows your story as well as you do, so don’t automatically change things based on what somebody else suggests.
However, KEEP AN OPEN MIND. After all this work you’ve done, it’s worth finding out what readers actually think. Your critics might have some valid points. If more than one person says the same thing, it’s even more likely to be grounded in some sort of real problem worth solving. You have to be committed to doing anything you can to make your story the best it can be! Once you’ve done this work, you’re ready… So send it out to lots of editors and cross your fingers. Good luck!
I encouraged the kids to take a look at their own manuscripts using this thirteen-step approach, and then I offered up one of my own for them to hack away at! 🙂 I’m not going to share it here, because I am quite embarrassed of it. It’s probably my worst story EVER, but that’s kind of the point. I wanted to give the kids something they could easily critique using this method. I gave them colored markers and had them go step by step, jotting down notes or underlining passages in each color.
We covered a lot of theoretical ground in this class, and not as much actual writing, but I hope these insights will inform their writing!
Kids ages 11 and up are invited to attend the Teen Writing Workshops this summer, which will be facilitated by successful, published authors. Not only will you get to hear the tips and tricks of well-known writers but you will also get to have your writing critiqued by them! You must register if you want to do a critique session.
The first workshop with Nicole Maggi, author of The Forgetting, and Michelle Levy, author of Not After Everything, will be Wednesday, June 24 from 6-8 pm in the Central Library Studio on 4th.
The second workshop, with Virginia Boecker, author of The Witch Hunter, and Charlotte Huang, author of For the Record, will be Saturday, July 11 from 3-5 pm at the Central Library Studio on 4th.
Call the Children’s Desk for more information: 626-744-4066 option 4.