Ruthless Revision

RWelcome back to the blog! For R I’ve got Bonnie Stevens talking about revisions.

Here’s Bonnie.

“Murder your darlings”—that may be the most famous piece of advice about revision, one that’s been attributed to just about everybody but really, apparently, originated with Arthur Quiller-Couch, a British writer and critic born in 1863. I think it became famous partly because it so vividly sums up two facts almost all writers instantly recognize as true:

• Revision is mandatory.
• Revision hurts like hell.

We labor so hard to bring our words into this world—sending any of them back into the void feels wrong. It feels like murder. And according to Quiller-Couch, the words we labor over the hardest, the ones we love the best, are usually the ones we most need to obliterate. How can we force ourselves to be as ruthless as we know we need to be? Is there any way to make the process less painful?

A few years ago, I read two essays that transformed the way I revise. Both had been around for decades, but I hadn’t encountered them before. And while both contain many valuable insights about writing, these essays made a difference for me primarily because each recommends one specific technique that has helped me murder my darlings more efficiently.

The first essay is Donald M. Murray’s “The Maker’s Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts,” published in 1973. Murray has many perceptive things to say about the early stages of revision when most writers, he says, focus on “the larger problems of subject and form.” Then he moves on to the stage when writers move “closer and closer to the page,” working through the manuscript sentence by sentence, sweating to make every word right. At this stage, Murray finds it best to work “in short runs, no more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a stretch.” If he tries to keep going longer than that, he says, “I become too kind with myself. I begin to see what I hope is on the page, not what is actually on the page.”

At first, this approach sounded strange to me—it seemed too fragmented—but I gave it a try. It works. I set a timer for twenty minutes (or usually, to be honest, thirty) and start working. I’m alert, I’m focused on revision, and I’m determined to find ways to make improvements. When the timer goes off, I take a ten-minute break. I put in a load of laundry or do some other household chore, I respond to an e-mail or two, or I read a chapter of somebody else’s book. Sometimes, I exercise (I should do that more often) or fix a snack (I should do that less often). When the break is over, I attack the manuscript with renewed alertness, focus, and determination.

I think this approach helps me revise more thoroughly, and I know it makes me more ruthless. When I try to revise without taking breaks, it’s too easy to slip out of revising mode and into reading mode. I start enjoying the characters and admiring the plot. After all, these are my darlings—I created them, so it’s natural for me to love them. But if I want other people to love them, too, I can’t afford to go easy on them. I have to scrutinize them critically and be prepared to murder them if necessary. Revising in short runs helps.

The other essay is William Zinsser’s “The Act of Writing: One Man’s Method,” written in 1983 (if he’d written it more recently, he probably would have said “one person’s method”). Again, there’s lots of good advice about revision in general, one specific technique that stands out for me. When he was teaching writing at Yale, Zinsser says, he would read through students’ essays and “put brackets around every component . . . that I didn’t think was doing some kind of work.” The “component” might be a single word, such as “the adverb whose meaning is already in the verb (blare loudly, clench tightly),” or it might be an entire sentence that “essentially repeats what the previous sentence has said.” “Most people’s writing,” Zinsser says, “is littered with phrases that do no work whatever. Most first drafts, in fact, can be cut by fifty percent without losing anything organic.”

I don’t know exactly why the brackets work so well, but believe me—they do. When I’m reasonably satisfied with the content and organization of a manuscript, I print a hard copy and go through it again, looking for words, phrases, sentences, and—who knows?—whole paragraphs I might be able to cut. Sometimes, I can cross things out immediately, confident they aren’t “doing some kind of work” and will never be missed. Often, though, I hesitate. Okay, so maybe that phrase isn’t strictly necessary, but I like it—it’s a darling—and I hate to cut it. So I put it in brackets and move on, postponing the final, painful decision. Later, when I go back and see a page studded with half a dozen or more bracketed words, phrases, or sentences, I realize how much tighter and sharper the page could be if I find the courage to make the cuts. Usually, I grit my teeth and cross out everything in brackets, and the page snaps into shape.

Maybe it’s easier to murder our darlings if we do it in stages—we put a component on trial by bracketing it, we later weigh all the evidence about the page or the chapter as a whole before reaching a verdict, and only then do we convict and execute. And when I look back at a page and see only a few brackets, I know I’ve slipped into reading mode and haven’t been ruthless enough. It’s time to take a break, and to come back in ten minutes determined to find more suspects to put on trial.

For me, Zinsser’s method works best when I print a hard copy and bracket in pencil. You could also, I’m sure, type the brackets, or highlight possibly superfluous components, or find some other way of using this technique without printing a hard copy. For me, though, for revision, a hard copy works best. Maybe that’s because I’m a dinosaur who wrote her first manuscripts on yellow pads and typewriters. Or maybe there’s a real advantage to getting physically closer to our manuscripts during the last stages of writing, to having our hands travel over our words as we make our final decisions about their fates—which ones to keep, which ones to change, which ones to murder.

I do know these two techniques have made a difference for me, and that’s taught me another lesson. Before I read these essays, I’d been writing for decades, teaching writing for decades. I considered myself an expert on the writing process, and I thought my own process was set. These essays proved me wrong. We never know enough about writing. No matter how experienced we are, we can still learn from what other writers have to say. Some of the books and essays we read will simply repeat things we already know, and some we’ll reject as just plain wrong. Once in a while, though, if we keep reading, we’ll find new, valuable insights, ones that might even make us revise our approaches to revision.

About B.K. Stevens

B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens has published almost fifty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Her stories have won a Derringer and been nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards. Her first novel, Interpretation of Murder, published by Black Opal Books in April, 2015, is a traditional whodunit that offers readers glimpses into deaf culture and sign-language interpreting. Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for teens, will be published by The Poisoned Pencil / Poisoned Pen Press. B.K. and her husband, Dennis, live in Virginia. They have two grown daughters and an assertive cat.

Front Cover (2)About Interpretation of Murder

As an American Sign Language interpreter, Jane Ciardi stands off to the side. Her life changes when she takes a job from a Cleveland private detective. Now Jane’s at the center of things, keeping tabs on a deaf African-American teenager whose odd behavior alarms her wealthy father. Jane also needs to discover the truth behind two murders—including the murder of the first interpreter the detective hired.

To get closer to the teenager, Jane joins a fitness center owned by a family that brings new meaning to the word “dysfunctional.” Jane can’t help feeling attracted to the family’s youngest son, a cheerfully amoral charmer who seems equally drawn to her. But he’s keeping secrets, and so are others at the fitness center. The more Jane learns about the center, the more she suspects some people go there to get more than a workout. The more she learns, the more she becomes the target of attacks that force her to use her martial arts skills to defend herself.

Somehow, Jane realizes, the fitness center’s connected to the two murders and to the deaf teenager’s odd behavior. Jane’s struggle to unravel all the secrets tests her resourcefulness, her loyalties, and her courage.

Cindy here again.

Great post. I like the brackets idea. I’l have to use that.

Keep writing.


  • Gail Farrelly
    April 21, 2015 at 11:37 am


    I enjoyed the post. I especially liked the first idea about imposing time limits. Believe it or not, I never thought about the idea of actually using a timer!

    I’ve enjoyed many of your short stories and am looking forward to reading your book. It sounds terrific.

  • Jacqueline Seewald
    April 21, 2015 at 11:47 am


    I enjoyed and appreciated both this blog on revision as well as your analysis of the first two pages of your new novel.

    The idea of setting time limits on revision is excellent. I do find myself becoming too complacent if I work on revision for long periods of time. As to Zinsser, I feel his advice is very good as well. But you’re right–it’s necessary to bracket with a print manuscript if anything will truly be accomplished.

  • B.K. Stevens
    April 21, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    Gail, I’m so glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed the stories. Short-story writers seldom hear from readers; sometimes, I wonder if anyone’s really reading the stories! It’s good to know that someone is. And yes, I absolutely rely on my timer. I use it to limit the amount of time I spend on Facebook and e-mail, too–we all know how easy it is to let those pleasant addictions absorb too much writing time.

    Jackie, I’m glad you enjoyed both blogs. The brackets have made a huge difference for me. Sometimes it’s almost embarrassing to look back at a page and see how much of it is bracketed–obviously, I’m a long-winded person by nature! But I think the brackets have helped make my final drafts much tighter.

  • Jan Christensen
    April 21, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    Bonnie, I liked both bits of advice you picked out and will be using them from now on. I agree about printing out at least the final pass for revisions, maybe the last two passes. This will work well for the bracket technique.

  • Miriam Greystone
    April 21, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    Thanks so much for the great suggestions about how to make revising more manageable. You’re right, it is a very difficult process, and I think the approaches you suggest should be extremely helpful. Thanks!!

  • B.K. Stevens
    April 22, 2015 at 12:27 am

    Thanks for your comments, Jan. I love drafting on a word processor, and I can do some kinds of revisions on one, but for final editing, I have to work with a hard copy. This is probably a very individual thing–I’m sure some writers can edit beautifully on the screen–but this is one habit I’ll probably never change.

    Miriam, I’m glad you found the suggestions helpful. I have to give all the credit to Murray and Zinsser. I haven’t really done justice to either essay. Both contain many sharp insights and valuable suggestions.

  • Kaye George
    April 22, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Interesting methods, neither of which I’ve heard of before. I can see the merits of the short spurts, but with a deadline sometimes that would be hard. I’ll have to think about the brackets. I do always edit on hard copy. I use a lot of paper, but I use both sides. That’s the way I justify it to myself. Thanks for the post!

  • B.K. Stevens
    April 22, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Kaye. Yes, taking breaks during revision might create deadline challenges, especially for someone who writes and publishes as much as you and Janet Cantrell do (for those who might not know, Kaye publishes mystery series under both names. Maybe you could come up with a variation on the technique: Kaye could revise for a while, and then, while she’s taking a break, Janet could revise. And yes, I sometimes feel guilty about wasting paper, too. Printing on both sides of the page is a good idea–I’ll try that.

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