In the last few weeks I've deleted many more words than I've written. Stephen King, in On Writing, cites the best advice an editor ever gave him: "final draft = first draft – 10%." King's first drafts must be tighter than mine. My final drafts are closer to two-thirds the length of the first.
At times like this I turn to good writers' advice on revision, not because this advice is very helpful, but because it's a good springboard for thought. Roberto Bolaño has a great step-by-step guide to writing short stories that includes steps like "Step 9. Reflect that, with only Edgar Allen Poe, we would all have more than enough to read," and "Step 10. Ponder Step 9 deeply."
A few years back I found Allen Ginsberg's Fourteen Steps for Revising Poetry, and they've been a prompt and inspiration whenever I edit a manuscript.
Fourteen Steps for Revising Poetry
By Allen Ginsberg
- Review it through several people's eyes
- Review it with eye to idiomatic speech
- Review it with eye to the condensation of syntax (blue pencil and transpose)
- Check out all articles and prepositions: are they necessary and functional?
- Review it for abstraction and substitute particular facts for reference (for example: 'walking down the avenues' to 'walking down 2nd Avenue')
- Date the composition
- Take a phrase from it and make up a title that's unique or curious or interesting sounding but realistic
- Put quotations around speeches or referential slang "so to speak" phrases
- Review it for weak spots you really don't like, but just left there for inertial reasons.
- Check for active versus inactive verbs (for example: "after the subway ride" instead of "after we rode the subway")
- Chop it up in lines according to breath phrasing / ideas or units of thought within one breath, if any
I like the emphasis on several different layers of review, each with its own purpose. Points 11 and 14 are especially great. Inertia is, if anything, a bigger problem in novels than poems because there are more excuses for it: you need that scene to support your structure, to provide some piece of information, to make this or that point. As for retyping, I'm not suggesting that we all retype four hundred pages of manuscript—but we might be more mindful of the words we wrote if we did.
This list appears, along with many other brief essays on literary technique and the Beats, in Ginsberg's "Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995." I know a decent number of writers have their own versions of this list; anyone else have a favorite?