Surgeon: Thoughts on the Revision Process

“Writing is Rewriting”
-Richard North Patterson

I’m about ready to tear my hair out because I’m rewriting so many different things that I can no longer tell what’s actually made it into my story and what’s coming from my head. I try and keep things pretty even keel by working on one project at a time, only one per day, and still, I find myself confused and semi-frustrated. Most of the time when I write and go back to rewrite, I naturally feel where the issues are and clean up a lot before I pass the drafts along to friends I trust. Not so these days. Much of my writing seems to be shrouded in an impenetrable fog. You know when you get to that delirious point where you can’t even tell if you should be using ‘into’ or ‘in to’ in your sentence? I’m there.

I’ve been trying different ways to keep myself sane. I’ve also been watching a lot of Scrubs these past couple months. For the tiny percentage of you that have never seen the show, it basically follows the daily goings on of a hospital and analyzes the relationships between nurses, doctors, and surgeons. Surgeons are often thought of as the butchers of the hospital, but the more I watch the show, the more I think writers have a lot in common with surgeons.

What I mean by that is, we approach our jobs in the same way: fix or cut out what doesn’t work, reattach the pieces, and hope your patient is still a person when you’re done. Writing is rewriting is cutting your work into hibachi steak. During my rewriting process, I mostly pull out and reword sentences to tighten things up. But I also do a lot of drastic cutting, taking out whole sections of my text. Once that’s done, it’s up to me to sew the pieces back together in such a way that it’s not noticeable. There’s nothing worse than a choppy story. I can always tell my story’s getting better when I want to go back and add something and simply can’t find a place to break open the text and add it in. When the text begins to resist revisions, you’re getting somewhere.

Like surgeons, we don’t want to make big, jagged stitches. Our patients will end up looking like Frankenstein, all cobbled together from parts that don’t fit. Instead, we want to make nice, neat stitches, the kind that heal into a faint and pretty scar, the type that with luck, only our patient (and ourselves) will notice. We want to sew up the new holes in our story so neatly that the junction will become flush with another, skin to skin.

It can be hard to make the decision to butcher our stories. They’re our babies. But butcher them we must. So go to it with abandon, a God with a knife reveling over the mastery you hold over your story. One slip and you can kill a story. But with skill and finesse, our patient will heal and come back better than before.

For more great quotes from famous writers on the rewriting process, check out this post on Shannon Hale’s site.

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6 thoughts on “Surgeon: Thoughts on the Revision Process

  1. Makes me think of that saying- ‘kill your darlings’ (or is it ‘murder your darlings’?). Either way, I always find it extremely hard to do. But do it we must. Good luck with your rewrites!

  2. I know how you feel – rewriting is always a painful process (probably why I’m not doing any more rewriting until 2013). My problem is that I tend to get too frustrated when I try to piece it back together, and lately I have taken to just starting from scratch again, highlighting the fragments I want to keep, and instead rewriting the whole thing. Sometimes this works, but of course sometimes it doesn’t and is just time-wasting, too…sigh. 😛

  3. Rewriting is Difficult, and often Time Consuming… At the moment I have like 5 Poetry Books in the Waiting, for Editing… I had My Oldest Sister Edit the First one, and I liked what she suggested.

    I’m now dealing with Finding an Editor, as My Sister really doesn’t have time… I’m going back to My Novella I Wrote a First Draft of withing My “The Written Word” Blog, which is basically a First Draft. Everything on that site is. And, beyond that, I really use it as kind of a “Writing Journal”, so I just throw down whatever comes into my head, without much care about the Grammar. So everything on there is basically Very Raw First Draft.

    I’m currently working towards Editing My Novella I finished at the end of last year. It’s Short, really more of a “Short Story” Technically, but feels much more like a Novella to me… And thus shall be called one.

    The Only Project I’ve really Full Blown Rewritten, is a Screenplay I Wrote back in 2002-2005… Spent Hundreds of Hours Rewriting and Reediting it. So hopefully it turned out ok.

    But other than that, I only work on “One Project” at a time when it comes to Rewriting. I would go Crazy if I tried to Rewrite more than one at a time.

    Recently I had a pretty thorough Review of My Novella sent to me, and they offered to do the same for My Fantasy Novel which I’m currently working on… I asked that they hold off… I’m currently “Reviewing the Review”, and Posting Both The Review and My Reply on The Dark Globe… Which you may have seen. In order to Capture the Whole Process, and Share it.

    Beyond that, that same Reader offered to do a “Line Edit”, which I hadn’t heard of, but basically it has to do with Style and Grammar I believe.

    So they’re currently starting to send me Line Edits of Each Chapter, and I can tell already I have great resistance about changing things… My concern is changing the Vibe more than anything else… And the Pacing, which I like.

    And so like you say, I’m sitting above one of My Babies with a Hack Saw, and feeling very protective.

    Challenging, but endlessly Fascinating is the Rewriting/Editing Process.

    Good Luck with your Projects, I could never Work on Rewriting or Editing more than one at a time… Write more than one at a time, yes… but not Rewrite and/or Edit more than one at a time. But that’s just me. Maybe it like you say, that we are indeed like surgeons, and I don’t think I can leave One Patient on the Table, Parts needed to be sewn on… And then step out of the room in the middle of that surgery, and take another one apart, Lol.

    Nope, One’s enough for me, Lol.

    Nice Article Shannon.

    Let me know if you ever want me to read over anything, not for Grammar, but for Story, Character and/or Flow.

    DarkJade-

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