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Joyce Carol Oates’s Tips for Revising Your Novel or Short Story
Joyce Carol Oates has spent over five decades as one of America’s premiere storytellers, from her National Book Award winning novel them (1969) to many acclaimed short story collections. Here are some writing tips and writing advice from Joyce that can aid you in both the drafting and revising process.
- Burn through the first draft. The first draft, Joyce says, should be blazing. Let the fires of creativity burn, and write your first draft as fast as you can. Once you finish the first draft, you’ll have a feeling of power and autonomy over this integral first step in the process—you can take weeks to revise and craft the piece once you’ve allowed for the creative energy to manifest your original idea.
- Plan to spend more time revising than initially writing. Even though Joyce suggests writing the first draft of a story as quickly as possible—in one sitting, even—she rewrites her pieces countless times after finishing them.
- Weigh story and language. “There are two ways of looking at writing,” says Joyce. The first is that you’re telling a story transparently—plot, action, dialogue, and characters who are precise and easily understood. The other is that your language is telling a story unto itself. The decisions you make about the language you use can be another layer of storytelling.
- Break your story into digestible parts, both large and small. To structure a revision, start looking at your story in parts. For example, reread just the beginning of your story as many times as possible, and change things along the way. You might end up cutting paragraphs to achieve quicker pacing, focusing on the nitty-gritty syntax of your sentences, or adding sections to the story in order to give the piece more depth.
- Each round of revisions should push you closer toward your audience’s reading experience. The more you read your story, the faster your reading pace becomes; this emulates the experience of your actual audience. For Joyce, this experience often leads her to enhance certain “sketchy” parts by bulking up scenes, description, and dialogue. Be on the lookout for those same “sketchy” passages in your own piece as you read, reread, and revise.
- Allow your story to radically shift from your first draft. Writing is a process. Burning through the first draft is important, but it’s unlikely that your final product will resemble that first attempt. Don’t rush yourself, and give the process time. Sometimes the end product will be very different from the first draft you produce, and that’s okay. The revision process will yield different results for different stories.
- Protect your time. The writing process differs for every writer, but one thing applies across the board: The worst thing for writing is interruption. Sometimes we interrupt ourselves. We look at our phones or the news, breaking our concentration and slowing our creative momentum. Other times external factors, like family or work pressures, break our concentration and remove us from the writing process. Being proactive and protecting your time is paramount. Joyce has learned to utilize times of day that tend to be quieter—morning and night—to write. However possible, we need to learn to go into a room, close the door, and give our writing the concentration it requires. How you manage this task is up to you.
Want to Become a Better Writer?
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