I used to think revision was for fixing problems, and within that mindset lay the majority of my problems with revision.
Maybe I’m not the only one who thought/thinks that, or maybe it’s just one of my ‘aah’ moments (wherein I realise something after some time which has thus far been obvious to everyone else). Regardless, here is my revised (pun intended) list of things revision is for. But the previous one consisted only out of one point, so it wasn’t really a list. So, rather, here is my first list of uses of revision:
When you write a first draft, you’re supposed to spam it down as fast as you can, not stopping for anything (Sort of what NaNoWriMo tries to teach you). Thus, if you come to a point where Pete needs both his arms to escape the lair of the nefarious Lester, but you amputated one of them in an emotional scene back in chapter 5, you’re going to want to go back and fix that.
But the smart people say that you should just make a note of it and go on, as if it’s already been fixed. You can then fix the problem by revising all the parts that need to be different because of Pete’s two arms and the replacement of the amputation scene etc.
Find and strengthen theme
If you like Stephen King’s metaphor of a story being a fossil that you’re uncovering (I do), a theme will emerge during the first draft. (Donald Maass said, “What do you want your reader to think about as they’re reading your novel, or later? That’s your theme.”) In fact, there’ll be quite a few. When you read your first draft, they will occur to you and you can make a note of which ones you like. Then, during revision, you find the parts where your chosen theme is highlighted and highlight it even more (but do it covertly). Then find the parts where other themes are highlighted and tone it down.
With revision, you can look at the different parts of a character’s personality and decide which ones are important. For example, it is crucial that you give the readers a reason to like the protagonist early on, so with revision, you select an attribute that is likable (i.e. loyalty) and see how you can change your first five pages to reflect that attribute. Just so, you can select parts of your character that you want your readers to know about and find ways in which you show them through actions or dialogue or appearance.
You can also introduce new characters to fill a void or merge two existing secondaries to make a stronger character.
Stephen King says (and he knows what he’s talking about) that the second draft equals the first draft minus ten per cent. Revision is also a time in which you reduce the mass of your story into more tightly packed pieces.
You take a look at an important sentence and ask yourself, “How can I change this sentence to make it clearer?” You take out scenes that drag and don’t advance your story. You edit scenes that need to be there, but are too slow-paced or too unclear. You take out overzealous adverbs and passive voice that bogs down the action. You put in details that bring the environment alive.
I’ve always wondered how people can say that revision is their favourite part of writing, but now I know. The revision reveals the true story. To continue King’s fossil metaphor, the draft is the shovel that opens the fossil and revision is the small brushes that mark out the details.