Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Less critical, but more often

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Brian Eno

If there’s one piece of advice I’ve given on this blog more than any other, it’s that you should never go back to revise a story until an entire rough draft is finished. I repeat this so often because in many ways it’s the most fundamental writing rule I know, and for me, it made the difference between years of starting and abandoning ambitious projects and being able to write extensive works of fiction on a regular basis. Yet I also haven’t been entirely honest. In fact, I go back to revise unfinished work all the time: a given day’s work will often consist half of writing an initial draft, with another half spent going back to rework what I already have, sometimes with three or four additional passes before I’m done. Granted, I don’t do this until a rough draft of the entire chapter is finished, and even if I’m still not satisfied with the result after the final rewrite, this doesn’t keep me from moving on to the next chapter the following day. But on the surface, it looks an awful lot like a violation of my own philosophy, which is that revision is best reserved for after you’ve managed to tackle some version of the story as a whole.

So why do I do it? Part of it lies in a distinction I’ve come to draw between two kinds of revision, one which might be called rendering, the other reworking. The quick rewrites I do for each day’s work are, in fact, a lot like the rendering process in animation: you start with a rough wireframe model of how the entire scene will look, then gradually refine the result until you end up with something that plays more or less like it will in the finished movie. As I’ve mentioned in my post in Blinn’s Law, rendering time generally expands to fill up the amount of time available for its completion, limited only by the number of hours the animator, or writer, is willing to spend at the metaphorical drawing board. The time I spend writing each day has remained constant over the last few years—it’s maybe four to six hours. As I’ve grown more experienced and comfortable with my own style, the number of minutes it takes me to write that first draft has gone down considerably, so I spent the rest of my allotted time on rendering. But I still think of the final result as the rough draft, despite the fact that it has passed through several more iterations after the version I rapidly typed up that morning.

Unrendered animation from Toy Story 3

And although every writer develops his or her own approach to cranking out that first draft, in my case, the routine I’ve developed—a really rough version followed by two or three equally fast passes—works so well that I don’t expect to ever give it up. It’s partially derived from David Mamet’s advice about splitting the work up into manageable tasks: when I write that ugly first draft, I’m not worried about elegance or even passable style, but just about getting those basic plot points and story beats down on paper. In the next pass, I try to turn the result into something resembling civilized prose; in the next, something that I’d theoretically want to read myself; and in the last draft, if I’m lucky, I’ll end up with something just a bit better than I hoped. In that sense, it really has more in common with one of my favorite tidbits of wisdom from Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: “Be less critical more often.” I’ve learned not to put a lot of pressure on any one pass; I don’t need to get everything right all at once. But each time I go through the text, it gets a little better, and by keeping my critical eye as forgiving as I can, I still have the energy to go through it a second and third time, with each revisit yielding small discoveries and improvements of its own.

The other type of revision is reworking, which involves radically rethinking the structure and content of the text itself, and that’s still something I prefer to save for later in the process, once I’ve started to get a sense of what the hell the story is really about. Even then, however, I’ve found that I’d rather do multiple modest revisions than one aggressive one. The cumulative result is the same: each sentence gets revised countless times, and I devote the same number of hours to the overall process. The difference, aside from the fact that it’s emotionally less taxing to spread the work out over several rewrites, is that it allows me to approach the story from a greater variety of moods and angles, and it keeps the text itself fresh. When you’re in the depths of a really severe rewrite, there often comes a time when you’ve been stuck on the same paragraph for so long that you no longer really see it, which often leads to hasty, poorly considered changes. If you’re less critical more often, it’s easier to take the work as a whole into account, and you retain your perspective on the weight of any individual sentence. The danger, of course, is that you give less than you should to any one rewrite, reasoning that there’s always one more around the corner, and that revision itself can turn into a way of life. But if you’re mindful of the risks, it’s the best way I’ve found of seeing a difficult project all the way through to the end.

Written by nevalalee

February 18, 2014 at 9:21 am

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