It would be great if our first drafts were the end of the hard work of writing. Unfortunately, the first draft is often the beginning.
Every writer dedicated to bringing out the best in their craft knows that the revision process is every bit as important, and every bit as challenging, as completing that ever-elusive first draft.
But not every revision is so successful.Here are some questions to ask. Why? What went wrong? And how can we do better next time?
It’s important to keep in mind that the central driving force of narrative is cause and effect. Nearly everything that happens in a work of prose, every plot beat, is in some respect the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows.
So when you change something, that change has ramifications. The rest of the scene may not play out exactly the same way. The next scene might not play out exactly the same way—or it might not happen at all. And that, in turn, is going to have it’s own set of repercussions.
So relying on pebbles as revisions is in some respects antithetical to the very idea of narrative. You need to dig and dam that stream.
You need to throw stones and boulders—or at the very least to be willing to do so.
If you revise with a mind toward changing as little as possible, the quality of your manuscript isn’t going to change much either.
Here are three ideas that may make the revision process a little easier.
1. Revise Like a Renegade
Some of the most impressive revisions I’ve ever seen are those in which major swaths of the manuscript—or even the whole thing—have been completely rewritten. Inevitably the result has been a far stronger next draft.
Does that mean that you should be expected to rewrite your novel from scratch? No. Of course not. But you should be willing to, if necessary.
One of the great challenges of the revision process is that it feels like it should require less work than writing the first draft, because writing a complete first draft itself feels a lot like finishing a book.
Even if you recognize there’s more work ahead, isn’t revising pretty determinedly the back stretch of the process? Aren’t you almost done? Sometimes you are. Often you’re not. And the point is that if the best and most effective route to the changes we need to see in the next draft is to blow the whole thing up—or at least major portions of it—then that’s what you need to do.
2. Revise with Care
We’re just blowing things up to watch the world burn. We’re not diverting the stream just to splash around in the puddles. Our steps may be big and bold, but they’re taken toward a defined destination. So before you apply the TNT to your previous draft, it’s a good idea to have a plan.
It’s best not to dive right into the manuscript and start revising. Take a step back first. Consider what exactly you want to do and why. It might be a good idea to write up a new outline, or to examine each character for motivation and character arc.
Determine your priorities too. The dialogue on page 153 may be awkward, but hold off on revising that until you’ve unraveled the inconsistent and undefined character arcs that lead to it.
In other words, don’t try to do whatever it takes until you know what you’re trying to do.
3. You’re Not Starting Over
Maybe the most important thing to understand is that however many or few revisions your manuscript requires, you’re not starting over—even if you are literally rewriting the whole thing. The rewritten draft could not exist without the one before. It’s the stream itself that informs the diversion. And like a stream, revision always moves forward, even when the twists and turns feel like going back.
Revision is every bit as important as writing the first draft. But if you give the revision process what it deserves, you will be rewarded with a completed draft that reflects your very best work.And you’ll be all the more proud of it knowing how much time and effort went into it.
Do you struggle with overwriting? Or have you conquered this part of the writing craft? Please leave your thoughts below.
My fictions appear in numerous publications. Some were published by Saturday Evening Post, New Millenniums Writings, Blue Earth Review and many others. I am a recipient of a fellowship and grant from the Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose, and two of my stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Also, my book of stories placed semi-finalist from Elixir Press.