THE HEART OF REVISION – It’s Not in the Words

Remember what Robert Frost said? “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader…”

As much as I love words, and as much as I love contemplating word choices when doing the final polishing, I know that words alone are not going to cut it.

From the beginning of this project, I knew how the story was going to end. And yet, when it came to writing the ending, the engine stalled. Knowing the ending and writing the ending, are apparently, two different things. As I built up to the climax, it was like building with sand. Some ingredient was missing. Finally, I pushed through to the end and although I knew revisions would be needed, at least it was FINISHED. Yay! As “they” (wiser and better minds than mine) say, “You can’t revise a blank page.”

My elation at having the novel completed was short-lived. I read through the entire manuscript, taking notes on where revisions were needed, but when I reached the pinnacle—nothing. It did not exist. Flat. Flat. Flat. Sigh.

In the critical scene, Lily is performing on stage for the first time since her mother’s tragic death. The song is her own composition and in the lead up to the performance, Lily is nervous about whether anyone will like her song. It’s all about the song. The performance goes well, the song is a success, which is pivotal to what transpires at the end. But the feeling is—nothing. All very nice, but, so what? Seriously.

Today, I went back to that chapter, determined to get it to work—to figure out what was lacking. When I reached the actual performance, I did something different. This time when Lily went on stage, I went with her and stood in her shoes. On stage, with the lights in her eyes for the first time since her mother’s death, I stood with her. I looked into the crowd and felt the surge of emotion and it had nothing to do with the song. Lily was remembering words that her mother used to tell her before each performance. Words that she was hearing right now, every bit as clearly as though her mother was standing beside her on the stage; hearing them as she had so many times when they performed together.

It was so easy to think it would be all about the song. But, it’s not. It’s so much bigger than the song. The song got her to this place—to this revelation—but it is not about the song. Lily has found her identity, separate from her mother, and yet connected to her in an irrevocable way. This is not her mother’s music, and yet, her mother lives on through the music. Lily’s music. And the song? Well that makes her mother very proud.

You could say I had been looking for emotion in all the wrong places. It wasn’t about figuring out how to express Lily’s emotion or her actions. It was about sharing the experience with Lily, and feeling the music and remembering with Lily and yeah… I felt a lump in my throat and tears pricking the corners of my eyes as I rewrote this scene. Finally, I understood what the scene was about. Finally, I got it right.

And I have to say, Robert Frost knew what he was talking about.


There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens every time I decide to share my manuscript with someone. Whether I am reading a selection to someone or sending someone chapters to read, I ALWAYs find something that needs “fixing.” With a specific audience in mind, suddenly the writing isn’t quite as perfect as I had thought.

Imagine reading your writing to an audience in the library (your target audience.) As you stand (0r sit) in front of your captive audience, record yourself reading the selection that is troubling you. How do you feel while reading it? Does it drag? Are you worried the audience is bored? Are you excited about reading it? Can you feel the tension build in the audience as they anticipate what will happen? 

Listen to the recording. Between the reading experience and the listening experience, you will most likely find the problem.

If you aren’t sure what is needed to fix it, try reading five endings to novels which have a similar target audience to learn how those authors ended their stories. Sometimes it helps to know what kind of an ending is needed. 

Published by Lois Donovan

Author of historical time travels, THE JOURNAL and WINDS OF L'ACADIE, Lois is in demand as a speaker/presenter at literary conferences and young writers' conferences and teachers conventions. Lois grew up primarily in Riverview, New Brunswick, but has called Calgary home for many years. Currently, Lois enjoys life in Calgary with her husband, daughter, son and daughter-in-law.

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