Lightning and the Lightning Bug: A Revision Checklist
July 3, 2014 § 6 Comments
Susan Tiberghien, author of One Year to a Writing Life, Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft, responded to yesterday’s post where Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore revealed that revision brings him absolute joy, with this very useful excerpt from her craft book, and an equally useful checklist for revision:
Susan M. Tiberghien’s Lesson on Rewriting
“The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.” This wonderful quote is from Mark Twain. In this workshop we will go after the lightning.
When asked about rewriting, Ernest Hemingway said that he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. Vladimir Nabokov in a self-interview wrote that spontaneous eloquence seemed like miracle and that he rewrote every word he ever published, often several times. And Mark Strand, former poet laureate, said that each poem of his sometimes goes through forty to fifty drafts before it is finished. “I like rewriting and don’t trust anything that comes spontaneously. It’s just my way.”
Checklist for Rewriting
1) Leads and Endings
—Does first paragraph (first line) capture reader’s attention?
—Is the piece well framed? Does it begin too early, too late? End too early, too late?
—Are the lead and the ending compatible? Is there foreshadowing?
—Is there a feeling of resolution (does protagonist change / is there new meaning)?
—Closed or open-ended: Wrapped up but still alive?
2) Description (characterization and setting) and Dialogue
—Does each setting contribute to story?
—Show! Is description vivid, intimate? Does it touch the senses?
—Are characters alive?
—Is there dialogue? Does the dialogue advance characterization and story?
—Is each character’s voice unique?
3) Action, Tension/Conflict
—Build tension through opposites in settings, characters, dialogue.
—Develop narrative tug, ‘profluence’ (Gardner).
—Is conflict important? Is the struggle worth the story?
4) Images, Similes, Metaphors, Symbols
—Which are the central (controlling) images?
—Expand language through comparisons (similes/metaphors).
—Go farther through associations (symbols).
5) Genre, Whose Story, Point of View, Style, Rhythm, Voice
—Does the shape fit the story? Is it the right genre (for both story and author)?
—Whose story is it?
—In what point-of-view?
—Is the style appropriate to the subject (poetic, didactic, humorous…)?
—Read it aloud for rhythm (scanning, word sounds, repetition)
—Is author’s voice full-bodied and consistent?
6) Theme and Meaning
—What is the subject (theme)?
—Is there clutter? Are the writer’s ideas clear?
—Is there a moment of new awareness (“epiphany”, Joyce)?
—Why is story important?
7) Editing (when the writing is revised)
—title (does it fit, does it grab attention?)
—length (too short? too long? strengthen, prune)
—sentences and paragraphs (varied, monotonous)
—verbs (active? passive? avoid verbs of being)
—unnecessary words (adverbs, adjectives, clichés, pet words, dialogue tags)
—visual effect (placement of paragraphs, space, dialogue)
—proofread for consistency, punctuation, spelling