Want to know the difference between an experienced writer and a noob? According to Nancy Sommers, experienced writers focus on deep revision strategies while amateurs look at surface-level fixes.
In other words, if you want to become a professional writer, you’ll have to do more than spell and grammar check your finished work. Per Sommers, experienced writers add content, subtract content, and reorganize large chunks of information until they find the optimal balance between what they want to communicate and what their readers expect to find.
Over a three-year-study of expert and novice writers, Sommers found that experienced writers see revision as a process of discovery. By moving around paragraphs and sentences, these writers often stumbled across ideas that were hidden in earlier drafts. With each revision, experienced writers found sharper focus in their writing.
On the other hand, amateur writers assumed their first drafts were their best drafts. They focused on eliminating repetition, changing words, and minor grammatical fixes. While their final work was cleaner than the original drafts, their writing came across as stilted and predictable.
The difference between the two types of writers is one group revises, the other only edits their work. Revision and editing aren’t the same thing. Revision looks at deep issues, asks the hard questions, and finds new angles or information that was previously overlooked. Editing adds the final polish to a well-written piece. Editing removes the surface-level errors while leaving the underlying structure intact.
While it is a good idea to ignore your readers and critics when writing that first draft, you certainly want to consider them in the final draft. The key to good revision is to be able to see your own writing objectively, preferably with an outsider’s keen eye for observation. Does the organization seem logical? Have you anticipated all your readers’ questions? Have you offered sufficient explanation? Have you described too much? These questions force you to step into the shoes of your reader.
In other words, revise like you give a fuck. Your writing matters, and your readers deserve the best version possible. If you struggle with revision, here are three tips for how you can improve your drafts:
A story or article should have a central theme or thread running through it. Like a good sweater, if you pull on that thread, everything will unravel. If you can’t eliminate something without ruining the overall work, then it is part of this thread. If you can pick at a sentence and tug it free of its paragraph without consequence, then it never belonged in the first place.
Be ruthless. Readers have limited time so every false step you can eliminate streamlines the process for them. Not only will this approach lead to tighter stories, but it will also make you a more disciplined writer. You might find that you can accomplish in 1,000 words what used to take 2,000 or more.
How many times should you revise? Chances are, if you are asking this question, then you aren’t spending enough time. New writers often assume they can spend less than an hour on revision, but the amount of revising needed depends on the genre and your experience. At least one writer recommends spending 25% of your time revising non-fiction vs 50% of your time with fiction. For every two hours you spend writing non-fiction, thirty minutes should be devoted to revision. If you are working on fiction, then spend at least one hour revising.
While it is tempting to see revision as unnecessary drudge work, it can revitalize a stagnant story. If you dedicate yourself to revision, you will find new ideas and a better story. Rather than feeling stifled at this stage in the writing process, you will find revision invigorating because it becomes more than the removal of surface-level errors.