Revision: Art or Craft?

Do you see your writing as more of an art, or a craft? Is your ability to tell stories something inherent and intuitive, or is each sentence the product of conscious, deliberate, meticulous crafting? (In D&D terms, are you more sorcerer or wizard?)

I think I’m a mix of both. Some aspects of writing flow from me, others resist me with the force of a child throwing a tantrum. For example, once the main characters’ voices and motives click for me, I can generate a solid two to four thousand word first draft in a day. But my stories stall on revision. It can take me months to tinker with those good first efforts.

I decided recently that I need to approach revision less as an accomplished artist, and more as an apprentice craftsperson. Apprentices need more structure and a lot of practice before they can internalize the skills of their profession and wield them in the fluid, natural way that is reserved for the master craftsperson.

So, to enforce discipline in my revision, I’m making myself to go through three phases of revision for my short stories:

1. Story Level:

I review the story at a high level, while considering questions along these lines:

  • Point of View: Did I choose a PoV that works for the story I’m trying to tell?
  • Plot: Is my plot clear? Does it have any holes?
  • Characters: Do I have too many characters given the length of my story? (a common problem for me)
  • Voice: Does the voice sound right for the story? I’ll often read it aloud to test this.

2. Scene Level:

After I’m sure that my overall story is pretty stable, I begin looking at scenes. Respecting scenes was the main craft lesson I learned from six intense weeks and over a dozen fine teachers and speakers at Clarion West. Scenes are the fundamental building blocks for my stories. Especially in a short piece, I only have a handful of scenes, and I want each one to count.

  • Reverse outline: The first thing I do is to break down my story into its component scenes. I note what each scene accomplishes.
  • Contribution: Does each scene advance the story? Do they have sufficient tension or character development? It might be worth deleting or combining scenes if they do too little, or separating them if too much is going on.
  • Other questions: Why should the reader care? Are their senses fully engaged?

3. Sentence Level:

This is one of my final passes. At this level, I’m thinking a lot more about the language.

  • Economy: Reducing redundancy, filtering words.
  • Rhythm: Read aloud–do the phrases sounds pleasing to the ear? Are they fun to say?
  • Clarity and precision: This is where I’ll try to remove awkward clauses, and fix unclear pronouns and dangling modifiers.
  • Strength and precision: Insert strong verbs and precise descriptions, replace cliches with my own constructions.

I want to make it clear that I’m *not* prescribing this to anyone. I don’t even force myself to follow this strictly. For example, I’m always working on the sentence level. It’s a tool, meant to help me grow as a writer, to practice at an area that I’m weaker until I can internalize these things.

I’m convinced that if I consistently and consciously work persevere through revision steps, that eventually they’ll come naturally to me. I can remember when inline skating and speaking Japanese felt very labored and clumsy to me, but hours of street hockey left me a competent skater, and after years of living and studying in Japan I could think as easily in Japanese as in English.

I have some questions for you. No pressure to answer all or any of them! But I’d love to hear any feedback you have to offer. One of the great things about being a writing apprentice is that I have the example of all of you masters to follow.

  1. Are you more of an artist or a craftsperson? Or are there better terms for how you approach the craft of writing?
  2. Does my approach for improving my revision skills seem restrictive or otherwise problematic to you?
  3. What do you look for when you revise, at each of these levels?

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  1. Mishell Baker
    09/06/2012 at 5:53 am Permalink

    I am definitely almost 0% artist.  I’m not sure I even understand what “art” means, to be truthful.  I do a lot of deliberate crafting, especially when it comes to plot/structure, which I outline within an inch of its life before I write even word one. I’m more prone to invent main characters from my gut than other aspects of my work, but there is a lot of forethought that goes into secondary characters, and what their function is in relation to the main character and the story.  I even have several formulas/techniques that I run each of my characters through (including the “inspired” ones) in rewrites to make sure they are structurally sound before I consider a book finished.

    Even to the extent that my stories contain sudden flashes of inspiration and spontaneity (such as a certain thing that happens at the midpoint of my WIP novel and surprised the hell out of ME as I wrote it) I still don’t consider myself an artist, but rather an entertainer, closer in function to a stand-up comic or blockbuster movie director than a sculptor or an indie filmmaker.  I’ve no designs toward awards, critical acclaim, or immortality.  I just want people to read my stuff in a few easy sittings and then go, “Whee, that was fun, where can I buy another?”  😉

  2. Wendy
    11/06/2012 at 11:54 am Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about this all weekend, and I hate to admit it, but I pretty much just barf out stories fully-formed. The stories that get substantially revised usually devolve into a puddle of unreadable goo.

    I’m pretty sure this means I’m not in control of my process and that I’m a really immature writer. I can only hope I outgrow it … hey, it could happen!

  3. Tim Barzyk
    12/06/2012 at 6:09 pm Permalink

    I think first comes art, then comes craft. First, I need to *feel* the story and characters, and write for myself. But then I need to grab that beast of a regurgitated draft and carve it, shape it, and polish it into a decent story based on the rules of the craft. 


  4. Beth MacKinney
    12/06/2012 at 6:11 pm Permalink

    It’s a craft that you develop into an art. 

    Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine. —Ludwig van Beethoven


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