Are you a John or a Marilyn?

The great John Irving once wrote, "Half my life is an act of revision." I don't know if he was talking about his writing or his personal life, but let's say it's about writing. I had a pleasant conversation with him around a block of cheddar at a party in Iowa City for the Iowa Writers Workshop one winter evening. A nice man, for sure. My favorite Irving novel is A Prayer for Owen Meaney.

I don't know two writers who revise the same way. Some as they go along, some when they've finished a draft, and one person who doesn't revise at all. That would be, according to her, Marilyn Robinson, the brilliant author of Housekeeping, Lila, and other luminous fiction. So here's how I do it and maybe it will be useful to you, that there might be something you can take for your own.

I usually write in bursts:  Sometimes an entire chapter or two before I stop. Then I go back and usually delete 5%-10%. Critics say I should delete more, but I ignore them. At some point, I'll go back to the first chapter and read and revise up to the point where I finished at my last session. This helps me check for inconsistencies in names, setting, histories of characters, and so forth. This also helps provide me with clear momentum for what comes next, the weight of the story pushing me forward.

That's it! Maybe you can adopt some of these techniques when you revise. Of course we all revise differently; that is, unless you don't revise at all and your name is Marilyn Robinson.