Sometimes you keep combing through your writing to the point that you’re worried it’s either going to become bald from all the tugging, or over-coiffed into an embarrassing helmet.
When you’re stuck in revision mode with a piece—and I heard from many of you who are—here are a few gentle techniques to get unstuck.
Put it away for a while. The hardest to do, but the best for your writing. I used to feel like I wanted to whisk my writing out to an audience as soon as possible, so I’d rush through revisions. But often what a piece needs more than anything is time away from you. Come back to it after a few weeks (or months) and suddenly it’s new again. You can edit it as if it were written by someone else.
Read it aloud. If I can’t wait because of a deadline, or I’m impatient, I will read work aloud as I revise it. Once on a writing retreat in Saskatchewan where printing was not easy to access, I found out by accident that recording myself works even better than reading to myself. I’d record before lunch then spend the afternoon wandering fields, listening with fresh ears.
Search for your crutches. If there’s a certain word, phrase, or punctuation mark that you tend to overuse, use your computer to search for it. This is a trick I use when editing an issue of a magazine because it allows me to find common errors I might otherwise miss proofreading when I get caught up in the narrative of the work. Computers are good at finding just the cold, hard facts; use them for this. They’ll cut through the clutter and root out your crutch words.
Read in public. Reading to active listeners not only allows you to get a live reaction to your words, but it wakes your own ear up. You'll tune into your performance and hear what the audience hears. And, of course, you also get immediate feedback: Does the room lean in closer at a tense moment? Laugh at a joke? Gasp at an provocative statement?
Workshop smarter. When you review notes from a writing workshop, really consider what is being said and how it applies to your project. I take workshop advice with curious detachment. Why? Because over the years of workshopping my writing, I noticed participants at times feel compelled to say something—anything—even if they don’t have any insights on my work. I suggest you look for patterns in feedback instead. If everyone said they didn’t understand what was going on in a particular section, that’s something you need to look at. If one person didn’t like a character, consider if you wanted that character to be likeable to that particular person in the first place.
Find a mentor. I’ve had so many great mentors who I found through writing programs and professional writing organizations. Writers you admire may offer manuscript critiques through a writing residency at a library (often free), or other institution, or freelance through their websites. (Please don’t ask them to look at your writing for free, unless invited. Make the investment in their expert opinion if you can.)
Use a good book on craft. I often re-read Betsy Warland’s Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing as a kind of self-guided mentorship, mainly because I no longer live in her city. (Betsy was a teacher of mine at SFU's Writers Studio, and her warmth and passion for the page translate well in this book.) Breathing the Page breaks down common problems she has seen over years and years of helping writers with manuscripts. For example, one section starts with the question, “Why is my reader not noticing, or misinterpreting, significant parts of my narrative?” (Great question.)
I hope you try some of these ideas and would love to know if any work to help get you unstuck from your revision.
P.S. If you have any epiphanies about your writing or breakthroughs on your revision using any of the above tips, connect with me on Twitter or Instagram. (Hint: I love seeing pictures of drafts in progress!)