I’ve found that during stretches of lengthy melancholia, I am less likely to generate new material, and more likely to turn to familiar old drafts that need to be revisited, reconstructed, or regenerated. Perhaps if you are feeling at loose ends in these difficult times, then revision might be the phase of writing that feels right for you.
Near the end of March, I reached out to a handful of experts to request a quick tip or exercise for people who are writing at home.
It’s taken me awhile to circle back around to sharing what I received, but I’m happy to say that a good writing tip rarely goes out of style.
Ian Finley adapted the cycle below from our fellow Laureate Carrie Knowles, who introduced him to the idea of the Five Step Revision.
Note: It is strongly recommended that you don’t revise until you have a complete draft, but once you do, hammering away at revisions might be just the project for you while staying safe at home.
How to revise? Sometimes changes are obvious. Sometimes you’re sure a script can be improved, but don’t have a way into the Revision Chute. Try these five steps, and see where you end up.
FIVE STEP REVISION PROCESS:
1. Add What’s Missing. Now that you’ve finished the script, you know where it was going all along, and what you were trying to say. Now you can add all those elements that support that destination and theme that you may not have been aware of when you started writing. Payoffs can be set up, and set ups paid off, the arc of characters enriched and extended, because you know who they are now.
2. Take Away What You Don’t Need. This is the biggest step, by far. Again, now that you’ve arrived at the end, you know what your story is trying to say, so you can remove those sections that were necessary explorations in the first draft, but don’t move the story forward. Be merciless. It’s not “obliterating your darlings,” it’s giving your darlings a haircut, taking away the unecessary bits of them so we can see them better. It’s a lot of cutting. I usually aim to trim 25% between my rough draft and the next few drafts. That’s one of every 4 lines, but your writing will be hugely better for it.
3. Ensure Conflict on Every Page. In a play, conflict is what keeps the audience watching. As soon as the conflict relaxes, you have about two minutes before the audience’s attention wanders, perhaps for good. That’s why it’s called a “happy ending;” when the characters are happy, the play is over. But conflict is not just bad stuff happening. In the Book of Job, bad stuff cascades down on this poor schlub, but there are zero conflict in the piece, until the end when he confronts God, and God pushes back. That’s what conflict is: two forces in opposition to each other; the pursuit of a want, running into obstacles, and overcoming them with tactics. Conflict is active, in the same way that agreement or even suffering is merely passive.
4. Ensure Character Voice is Unique & Consistent. Now is the time to read through the whole script, out loud, only reading one character’s lines. This will give you a sense of the quality and consistency of that character’s voice. Do it for each character, one at a time, making fixes as you go, and you’ll bring them all into focus. Ideally, you should be able to cover the character names and still know who is speaking, and this has nothing to do with funny accents or the like. It’s because each character is different, and therefore expresses themself differently. Character voice is the most powerful tool you have for revealing character to the audience, because it is shown to them every time a character speaks. Their status, background, interests, and relationships are all reflected in the way they speak, and that is the most elegant way of sharing that with the audience.
5. Edit! Spellcheck, grammar, mechanics, all of that! And correct Standard Manuscript Format! All of that is as important in playwriting as anywhere else. But notice that it is the LAST step of the process, for the very simple reason that after polishing the grammar of a given line, you might be unwilling to cut it (see Step 2) when you realize it doesn’t help the story. Edit last.
Except… last isn’t really last, because these five steps are actually a cycle. Once you’ve finished, go back and run them all through again. And again. My experience is that time is a key element in creating my best work. If you have time now to devote to revision, then your writing will be well served.
Ian Finley holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School at New York University. In 2012, he was named the Piedmont Laureate in the field of Playwriting and Screenwriting by the arts councils of central North Carolina. He is the author of many plays, you’ll see them listed in the show notes including: The Nature of the Nautilus (winner of the Kennedy Center’s Jean Kennedy Smith Award), And There Was War in Heaven (finalist for the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference), Native, The Greeks, 1960, Jude the Obscure, Suspense, A Perfect Negroni, 11:50, the Our Histories cycle of site-specific plays for Burning Coal and the First Night site-specific plays for Seed Art Share.
More Ian Finley:
Enjoy Ian’s lectures on YouTube.
Enjoy his most recent podcast conversation on Artist Soapbox: 105: Art and education in times of crisis with Ian Finley, playwright and educator
Additional suggestion: Dig into the PL blog archives to read the generous and useful posts written by Piedmont Laureates in previous years. You won’t be disappointed.