Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

When not to revise

with 3 comments

As Toni Morrison reminded us yesterday, the act of revision can be a lot of fun. For me, it’s invariably the most satisfying part of the writing process. Instead of facing a blank page, you’ve written something that exists, for better or worse, and now your only obligation is to improve it. Revision is when all the old metaphors about writing as a manual craft, like carpentry, seem the most convincing: rather than willing something into existence, with its attendant emotional strain, you’re planing, sanding, and polishing a block of responsive raw material. It’s subtractive rather than additive. You feel less like a poet and more like a diligent hobbyist. In general, instead of the neurotic fever of the first draft, revision feels rational, calm, considered. As a result, it casts its own kind of narcotic spell, a sort of hypnosis, until you feel that you could happily go on revising the same few pages forever.

Which is why revision can be so dangerous. As important as it is—and in many ways, it’s the heart of what a real writer does—it’s less important than the primary act of creating a complete story for the first time. For some authors, it only generates the illusion of progress. I’ve known too many writers, including myself, who wrote one chapter of a novel, then kept polishing it to make it “perfect.” But there’s no such thing as a perfect chapter, at least not in isolation: a chapter succeeds or fails based on its place in the overall pattern. Without context, any standard of perfection is a mirage, and it retreats farther into the distance the more you revise. In the end, that one chapter is all you’ll ever have. Of all the rules for writing I once posted here, then, I’ve come to believe that #4 is the most pragmatically important: Write an entire first draft before going back to revise, and never edit an unfinished manuscript.

I’m going to put this as bluntly as possible: if you start revising a novel before you’ve completed a first draft, your chances of finishing it at all are essentially zero. This isn’t a value judgment, but an empirical observation, and it’s especially true if you haven’t been published. Right out of the gate, no writer is all that good, so the best thing to focus on is cultivating good habits—and the most important habit of all, the one on which all others depend, is finishing what you start. Revision is about coaxing a story into its strongest possible form, but it can too easily degenerate into its opposite, which prevents the story from existing at all. Compulsive revisers of unfinished work are only postponing the hard choices that come with pushing a project to its conclusion. And the worst part is that they don’t even grow as writers: technical proficiency doesn’t come from constantly revising the same handful of pages, but by applying your tools to as great a variety of scenes and circumstances as possible.

There’s only one solution: even if the first draft of a chapter seems terrible, and it probably is, write it, finish it, and move on.  When you finally do get the chance to go back and revise the finished manuscript, you’ll find that much of your work has already been done for you. As I’ve said before, a problem that seems intractable in Chapter 1 is often solved by an unexpected inspiration while writing Chapter 20—but only after you’ve written nineteen other chapters first. There’s a world of difference between revising a paragraph with a hazy sense of the surrounding story and approaching it with the full weight of a finished novel pressing comfortably around you. You’ll understand the story more deeply than before, and you’ll have learned a few tricks along the way: no matter how experienced the author, there’s no project that leaves the writer’s craft entirely untouched. In the end, then, you must revise. But probably not yet.

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2011 at 10:06 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. I’m sure you are right – but don’t you also think there might be a sensible interim state of semi-revision? Or even the opposite sin, of producing a first draft of such rawness that it is too dispiriting to come back to for revising?


    December 28, 2011 at 6:51 am

  2. There are always exceptions to the rule, but I think it’s safer to err on the side of caution—I’ve just seen too many writers get stuck revising a handful of chapters. In any case, a writer will learn more from even the roughest first draft of a complete novel than a few perfect fragments. (And there’s nothing like a finished draft to give a writer a reason to keep going!)


    December 28, 2011 at 10:24 am

  3. Thanks Alec -this is very good sense.


    December 28, 2011 at 10:34 am

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