Micro, Macro, Global: Revision Language and Levels of Zoom
When I talk about revisions, I often talk about work that needs to happen at a specific “level” of the piece. While you could divide a written work in a basically infinite number of ways, my preferred terminology is micro-macro-global (which I find to be especially pragmatic and functional). Here’s a brief overview of the micro, macro, and global levels, followed by some notes on how this conceptualization can be used effectively.
Definitions of Micro, Macro, and Global Writing
Micro: The micro work happens at the level of the word and sentence. It refers to the degree of power, clarity, and eloquence within each sentence. It is the question of how you say what you’re trying to say. Micro work is involves with word choice and sentence structure.
Macro: The macro work happens at the level of paragraph, scene, and movement*. The macro work is not a question of how well you say something but of choosing what’s worth saying and when it should be said. Macro work is involved with pacing, theme, unity, characterization, setting details, and suspense.
(*I’m referring to “movement” in a musical sense; written work has the same sorts of emotional shifts and “key changes” that help connect, arrange, or illuminate the other portions of the composition.)
Global: The global work happens at the level of sub-plot, plot, and can encompass the story as a whole. The global work is not a question of what will allow you to tell the story effectively but of what stories are actually worth telling. Global work is involved with plot, character, and setting.
Bear in mind that these elements of a piece don’t exist independently of one another. If your global level is better, you’ll have an easier time maintaining your macro level and find more interesting things to say at the micro level. If you execute your micro level more effectively, your macro level will be smoother and your global level will achieve more of its potential.
For some extra notes, check out my entry on how a bias in favor of micro plays into questions of literary elitism and friction between genres.
The Order of Operations
It’s tempting to advise writers to work at the global level first, hone in on the macro, and then tune the micro level. This, first, is an important reversal academia’s near-exclusive focus on the micro level. Second, de-prioritizing the micro-level work helps avoid the unhealthy perfectionism that can often prevent writers from ever getting through the first draft.
However, to say that the work is linear is misleading. The inability of a plot to work out given its originally conceived trappings may not be apparent until the work has been arranged. Micro work can do a surprising amount to remedy macro issues, and appropriate cuts at the macro level can shoulder much of the micro level’s burden.
Further, a problem can often be resolved at more than one level; a scene that’s not working can be resolved by changing something fundamental about one of the characters (a global change), adding an earlier scene that illuminates the importance of the scene in question (a macro change), or tuning up the descriptions within the scene itself (a micro change).
So, while it’s wise to think about the global level of a piece, question the purpose of whatever paragraph or movement you’re working on, and then pay attention to the micro work (often in the subsequent drafts)—remember that we’re not working with a line. We’re not even working with a flattened geometric object. This is a three-dimensional process, full of experimentation and shifts between different levels of revision.
One of the key things to remember is that there’s never a point where any level becomes unimportant. Even after you’ve tuned the micro level of a piece to near perfection, you may still have a flaw in the plot itself. It’s easy to fall in love with your words—and feel justified because of all the time you spent on those words—and thus ignore problems at other levels. When people say “kill your darlings,” this is part of what they’re referring to.
The language of “level” has no essential truth; it’s simply a useful way to talk about the “level of zoom” that may be useful in addressing a piece’s current issues. Use it as such.
In the near future I’ll be posting an example piece and walk through the questions of micro, macro, and global revision, so stay tuned.