“Kill your darlings.” If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or discovered the miracle that is the World Wide Web, you’ve probably heard that neat little maxim (attributed to Faulkner and a whole host of others) bandied about a number of times. What it really means is to not hang on to those all-too-common self-indulgent parts of your work, but many writers, unsure how to proceed with a revision, take it a little too far. Here’s how to tell if you’re mistaking the good stuff for the darling:
You’re just following “the rules.” Sometimes, not knowing where else to start, writers draw up a revision plan based on following certain rules—removing all adverbs and passive voice, making sure to end on an image, studiously alternating long and short sentences, etc. But this kind of technical drudgery is no more than polishing and can take the character from your work. Revision should be much more than conforming to a set of rules.
You’re totally lost. If you honestly don’t know what needs to be done or where to start, don’t set out on an unfocused revision. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you may not be ready to absorb and implement whatever editorial suggestions have been made about your work right away, so give yourself permission to set it aside for a bit. Sometimes it takes a little distance to see your story in that crucial new light.
It feels too much like work. Some authors hate revising, for this very reason. Personally, I love it—because revision is an act of writing, not an act of cleaning up or publishing. If it’s not fun, something’s wrong. Revision should feel like creating (even if you’re technically destroying).
You don’t recognize your story anymore. Recently I saw revising likened to necessary amputation: cutting off a limb to save the body. This “saving the body” part is sort of the point of revision. Assuming you don’t have a story that’s simply too bad to be saved, the main idea of your story—the heart, the kernel of truth, perhaps the spark that started it—should carry through to the next draft, and the next. Plot, characters, even tone may change, but if you no longer recognize the core of it (the part of it that excites you to creation, that gives you joy), the revision has gone too far.
Your story is starting to feel flat. The true aim of revision is to breathe new life into a story, so if it’s starting to feel dead, you may be destroying the voice or flow of it by adding, changing, or cutting (usually cutting) too much.
You feel abject despair. If it’s a good story, you’ll have an instinct for how to make it better. If you feel abject despair, you’re probably not following that instinct, whether it’s because you don’t have enough distance, you’re writing to please a particular market, or you’re heeding someone’s well-intentioned but faulty editing advice.
However, don’t take this to mean that because revising can be scary, or means taking risks, you should avoid it or play it safe. Revision can be painful, messy, complicated—well, like a breakup. But think of it as more along the lines of working it out. There’s almost always hope—and it always takes hard work, sacrifice, and decisions.