Revision: The Next Step After the First Draft
It is finished at last. The manuscript you have been slaving over for months or years (or, for the case of the current NaNo participants, the past 30 days) is finally done and you have written the words “The End” in big, bold letters. The hard part of writing a novel is behind you, right?
According to the opinions of most writers, the answer to that would be a resounding “No!”
Getting from page one, chapter one to the end of your manuscript is a huge milestone. After all, the book is not a complete book until you make it to that finish line. It doesn’t matter how pretty or perfect those first chapters are if you never finish writing the last chapters. But nobody writes perfect first drafts. In fact, as Anne Lamott remarks in her book Bird by Bird, most writers will find that they write shitty first drafts. And that is okay if you do, too. I humbly confess that I wrote a shitty first draft of my first manuscript. It came in at just under 36,000 words and was filled with inconsistencies and incomplete ideas. Thankfully, the first draft was not my final draft.
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When I used to hear the word revision, my mind would go back to the high school years when I would get back a paper with notes in red ink inserted in the margins and in the spaces between the lines. I would imagine missing commas, run-on sentences, forgotten apostrophes in words like “its”, and many other details that were overlooked during the writing process.
But I wasn’t thinking about revision when I was thinking of those things. I was thinking of editing. What is the difference between these two?
- Sentence-level corrections dealing with spelling, grammar, punctuation, word choice, etc.
- Targeting mistakes in a paper and fixes them.
- Polishing an already-revised paper before sending it off for queries or publication.
- Dealing with the entire body of work: looking at strengths and weaknesses, organization and flow, consistency, voice, point of view, etc.
- Likely to involve major changes, such as moving chapters around, cutting complete passages, adding new chapters or information, rewriting weak or confusing parts of the story, expanding upon ideas, etc.
- Taking a good manuscript and making it better, such as through trimming out the excess or fleshing out the bare spots.
When you compare the two processes, one stands out as being more impactful, making meaningful changes to the manuscript. Many people hate editing and I can hardly fault them for that. But I have grown to appreciate the beauty that can be uncovered and refined through the revision process. Consider it an opportunity to delve into the areas where you are weak, focusing in to strengthen those areas.
For example, I have a knack for writing action scenes. I love moving things forward through writing physical conflict and trials that put the main character in situations where they must act to escape. But I also have two very big weaknesses when I write, and they both crop up constantly in my first drafts (and even subsequent drafts). I tend to avoid dialogue because I struggle to write dialogue, and I tend to tell instead of show as I am describing scenes and places. The first I can attribute to my own lack of comfort in writing good dialogue, and when it does appear in my writing it tends to be short, broken by actions, or information dumps of vital pieces of story/backstory for the reader. The second happens because, as I am writing that initial draft, it is far quicker to mention what I am envisioning in my mind than trying to describe it in different terms. It is when I go back and revise on a second, third, or fourth draft that I am then able to find the places where I could enhance these things and make those changes to strengthen the scenes in my writing. Which is, essentially, what the revision process is all about: taking what you already have an making the strong parts stronger and the weak areas better.
Understanding and embracing the revision process has helped me grow as a writer. I no longer dread the task of revisiting a finished story or manuscript, as I have been able to see how each revised draft has improved the writing. And I no longer pressure myself to write a perfect first draft, which is an impossible task anyway. Have you found success in revising your writing?