(material adapted from Invisible Art, a textbook on editing co-written with Sarah Layden)
An axiom from the world of sales: If you give someone two choices, they’ll probably pick one. If you give them three choices, they’ll say, “I have to think about it.” If you give them four choices, they’ll say, “Forget it, I’m fine with what I have.” Point is: Trying to consider too many things at once can be paralyzing.
That point is valid for revision, too, which you may know if you’ve ever tried to “fix everything” in a single pass over a manuscript that needed a good deal of work. But how else are you supposed to go about it?
When the poet Tom Lux revised his own work, he used an approach he referred to as “lenses.” He took multiple passes over a poem, but only considered one aspect per pass. If he was reading the poem through the “cliché lens,” for example, he only looked for clichés. Then he might take another pass with the “verb lens,” looking for passive voice and questioning every –ing ending (e.g. the dubious “looking” and “questioning” in this sentence). Then another pass with the “line break lens,” and so on.
Lux’s approach can be particularly useful for the emerging writer because it gives you a specific and limited job for each pass. As an added benefit, your understanding of the manuscript and its architecture will deepen with each reading draft, so that by the time you’re done with this exercise, you’ll see the bones of the manuscript more clearly than you could after the first or second read.
Following is a short list of possible lenses, some of which are linked to documents that will give you more details and some questions to consider. You can pick your lenses from this list, or you can come up with your own lenses. You can also spend as many days on this exercise as you like (I ask my 200-level students to pick a couple of lenses and spend a single day on this exercise, while my 300- and 400-level students are expected to spend three days trying out different lenses).
A Quick Look Ahead
Chances are that your story is longer than when you started this regimen—maybe quite a bit longer. Maybe it seems . . . ungainly. Maybe this is freaking you out. This is not making my story better, you might be thinking. It’s just making it fat.
I hear you. Years ago, I took an independent study with Robert Rebein, author of Headlights on the Prairie and other books. All semester long I worked on the same story, revising it over and over. The story got bigger and bigger, longer and longer, and by the mid-point of the course, it was a bloated mess. I was discouraged by this, but Rebein was happy. He called this the “all-in draft.” Finally, he said, I had discovered all that I needed to discover, and written all that I needed to write. Now that I knew everything about the story, I could pare it down to its essence.
Which is what I’ll invite you to do tomorrow.