Revise Like a Scientist: A Method Approach to Finding the Right Treatment for Your Story
By Lynne Griffin •
“My pencils outlast my erasers.” —Vladimir Nabokov
“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”
There’s consensus among writers that writing is revision. But that doesn’t mean we don’t struggle with the complexities of the task when we’re in the middle of drafting a story or novel. It’s challenging to overcome the reluctance to edit your writing, diving into the work of cutting, reworking, and rewriting with abandon. Unless you have a strategy.
Ezra Pound once advised, “Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.” Which I take to mean, don’t settle for merely cleaning and polishing your first draft in an effort to sell it to yourself. Rather, consider taking a methodical approach to re-visioning the pages before you. With deliberateness, take time to dig deeper, to find the heart and soul of your piece.
Adopting the scientific method as a framework for writing revision involves applying a series of steps that allow the writer to assess a piece of fiction, to experiment with adding new information or new thinking about a story, and it provides a way to analyze and respond to feedback acquired from trusted readers. Like a scientist, the writer can back up and repeat the steps at any point during the process. It’s an iterative approach.
Before the renowned painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, would put her work into the world, she’d sit with it and decide for herself its strengths and flaws: “I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” O’Keeffe may have been trying to protect herself from the inevitable stings that come when artists share work, or perhaps she was merely looking for validation of the work as she saw it. Either way, adopting her exercise of evaluating a work with candor before it is ever shared with other people provides the writer with a helpful path forward in revision.
If you’re honest with yourself and concede that your protagonist’s emotional arc is flat, or your setting does nothing to influence narrative drive, or your story structure is confusing—then therein lies your starting point for further investigation. Revise with the emotional craft of fiction in mind. Finesse the setting details. Reconsider your story structure.
There’s no cause to worry that using this scientific framework will inhibit you. Instead, trust that your educated guesses about the state of your draft will open your mind to creative experimentation. Jeanette Winterson once said, “Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.”
Another way to test your assumptions about your draft comes from writer and former book reviewer for The Washington Post, Carolyn See. In her book Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, she proposes tackling “troublesome, chaotic, emotion-packed, repetitive manuscripts” with an exercise called, “What I Have and What I Need.” Page by page, focused on character, plot, theme, and more, she recommends laying out in frank terms a map for revision.
Time to Experiment
When I work with writers on a developmental edit of their story or novel, I prepare them in advance that while I might be able to show them the vulnerable areas of the manuscript and make suggestions, I may not offer them the exact right revision proposition. Why? Because only the writer can know if a particular solution to a story problem resonates. And the only way to find the right solution is to experiment.
This is your time to take risks. Be ambitious. You can always refer back to your saved first draft if need be. Though in my experience, you won’t need to. Once distracting material is removed from scenes, characters may well leap off the page and your central conflict may become more evident to readers. Other times, deleting extraneous writing will show you exactly what it was masking—a lack of tension or a tired plot device. Either way, editing on a macro level is an essential step in the revision process. If it uncovers new problems, be grateful rather than discouraged. While you may need to add more scenes or develop new plotlines, each time you revise you will be getting closer to finding the heart of your story.
After completing a revision related to character, plot, setting, and dialogue, sometimes a nip and a tuck is all that’s needed. Remove unnecessary backstory and lose gratuitous adjectives and adverbs. Take out passages that slow the pace and justify each metaphor and simile. Get out of your character’s head and let him take new action. This thorough cleaning of your manuscript can make a big difference. Toni Morrison once claimed that changing a handful of words in one of her manuscripts changed the entire story.
Communicate & Analyze
Once you’ve revised your story on a macro and then micro level, it’s time to find objective readers. Trusted readers are those people you can rely on to give you honest feedback about what is and isn’t working in your story. Resist the urge to engage friends and family as they may be more focused on encouraging you when what you really need is constructive criticism. Is your plot a balance of fresh and familiar? Are your characters well-developed, perfect in imperfect ways? Is your story’s central conflict compelling enough to sustain a ten, or three hundred, page narrative? Enlist avid readers and talented writers who have the know-how and experience to tell you the truth about the current state of your manuscript. Share with them the specific elements of craft you’d like for them to pay attention to as they read, and then ask them if you’ve executed your objectives effectively.
Whether you receive feedback in the form of an editorial letter or your trusted reader speaks with you to discuss your story, try to read or listen more than you react. No matter what the feedback is, it’s likely you won’t know what to do with it at first. You’ll need to give yourself time to analyze what resonates and what doesn’t. Trusted readers are often like developmental editors, good at pointing out when something’s not working with the manuscript, yet their suggestions for rectifying issues may not feel right for you or the story. Give yourself space to think about how you’ll solve the story problems your own way.
“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” — Kurt Vonnegut
While completing a first draft is a monumental accomplishment, it is by way of rigorous revision that the depth and complexity of your story is revealed. And that process begins by trusting your intention and then strengthening your ability to honor it to good effect. Don’t rush the process. Remember to dig out your favorite books on craft and spend time rereading. Take a class. Go to a conference. Schedule time to re-imagine your story and stick to it. You’ll get there if you take the process seriously. If you revise like a scientist.
LYNNE GRIFFIN is the author of the acclaimed novels Life Without Summer (St. Martins Press, 2009), Sea Escape (Simon & Schuster, 2010), and Girl Sent Away (SixOneSeven Books, 2015). She’s also the author of the nonfiction book Negotiation Generation (Penguin, 2007). Her short stories and essays have appeared in Solstice; Chautauqua; The Drum Literary Magazine; Salon; Brain, Child; Library Journal; Fiction Writers Review; Psychology Today; and more.
Lynne teaches writing at GrubStreet Writers, the independent writing center in Boston. She has acted as the Prose Writer-in-Residence at the Chautauqua Institution, Visiting Scholar of Education at Wheelock College Singapore, and taught writing at national conferences such as the Key West Literary Workshop, the Boston Book Festival, Association of Writers & Writing Programs, and GrubStreet’s Muse and the Marketplace conference. Lynne is a developmental editor for fiction and nonfiction projects. To learn more about her work, visit her website at LynneGriffin.com or follow her on twitter @Lynne_Griffin.