My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, July 16, 2021

Daunted By Revision (Mailbox)

I am daunted by revision. What should I do?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox." I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. It's okay if most questions are more like "can you assure me that this important thing is really important?"

Just a note before I jump into this question. My queue of questions isn't EMPTY, but I can kind of "see the bottom," and like a cat, I'm absolutely sure that this means I will soon run out and perish. So if you've got questions for me, now's a good time to send them.

Sieran asks:

For context, I write primarily for pleasure and self-expression, but I also want to keep improving my craft and hope that any friends, family, or acquaintances interested in my work would enjoy them. I'm not aiming for a huge audience, so even a small group of fans, including friends and family, would be enough for me. If I do decide to publish, I'm quite content with self-publishing, especially as I have a number of good role-models who are indie authors.

As for my question, I understand that to write a good book, we need to do multiple rewrites of our manuscript, which is perfectly reasonable, especially as rewrites can help us make larger, structural changes to our stories. Yet, I have enough honest self-awareness by now to admit that I'm daunted by the prospect of doing all those rewrites. I am actually in the awkward situation where I have finished writing 22 books, many of them a part of a series, and I only have one completed series so far. My books are typically 300-400 pages long, with around 300 words per page, just to give you an idea of where I'm at.  Yet, I haven't rewritten, let alone fully edited, any of these books, so it makes me feel like a huge fraud. In fact, I wonder if I'm just making excuses for myself, believing that I'll eventually get to rewriting, but I take so long to write book after book, that I'll never get to it! The fact that I have relatively humble ambitions, gives me even more of an excuse to put it off. I know I technically don't have to do as much editing and polishing as a professional author would, since I'm not aiming to make money or to find a large audience. But still, I feel bad, like I'm not doing due diligence to my stories and characters. Also, it suddenly occurred to me: Tolstoy must have done multiple rewrites of War and Peace!!  

Do you have any advice or suggestions for someone like me? To sum up what I wrote above, I'm not aiming to find a huge audience or to make money from my books; I just want to enjoy the writing for itself, keep learning, improving, and write good stories that friends, family, and any other interested acquaintances could enjoy. But I've hit a snag where I ought to do many rewrites of my work, yet I only finish writing a lot of books without doing much editing beyond some surface, sentence-level edits. So I feel like I'm secretly daunted by the idea of doing multiple rewrites, and am awestruck by the fact that Tolstoy must have rewritten War and Peace several times. I know this is eventually something I'll have to figure out for myself, since I'm walking a path between wanting to write professionally and wanting to write only for myself, because I do hope that friends, family, and acquaintances curious about my work will like my writing too. Nevertheless, any thoughts and advice you have on my albeit rather messy situation, would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks so much!

My reply:

I want to make one thing absolutely clear before we go any further. 100% clear in a way that there can be no ambiguity, no misunderstanding, and nothing but Manini'owali Beach-water-clarity when I say this: if you have written twenty-two 300–400-page books, you are not a fraud. 

You are a writer. 

Maybe not published. Maybe not best-selling. Maybe not paid. But you absolutely ARE a writer. You know how many unpublished books I've written? Four. So maybe it's I who need to feel like the imposter here, Sieran. 

You might run into some dripping anal sphincters out there who want to tell you that if you're not engaged in (~pop in monocle and use Thurston Howell III voice~) "the entire writing process, then you haven't really written anything at all." I recommend, if you meet one of these people, that you invite them into the basement to try out this wicked-delish amontillado you scored from a carnival.

That said…I do want to be clear that revision is a part of the writing process, and it might arguably be the most important part. It is the beating heart of QUALITY writing. So don't take this the wrong way, but it sounds like you have twenty-two rough drafts. Still not a fraud by any means. Still absolutely a writer. But if you want to write for money, audience (as niche as it may be), or fans, you have another step, and likely a longer, more arduous step than writing the first draft. 

"God is in the revision," is an actual saying you will hear in the halls of literary fiction.

"Did you just…." Said dripping with indignance. "Did you just send me a rough draft? ME?" is more what this sounds like in the halls of more commercial endeavors. 

Now, moving on to the rest of your question, let me just say that even though this is one of those refreshing questions of moderated expectations that is much less formulaic to answer than "how can I MAKE it," I can't actually answer it. 

I mean I can…but I can't. 

Here's what I mean, Sieran: even if you told me the EXACT number of fans you wanted to have and the precise amount of money you would want to make per book, I couldn't tell you how much revision you need to expect to do. You just have to imagine it's forming a slope on a graph with the X–axis being times revised and the Y–axis being quality of the writing. Some people are better at revision so their slope is higher and some people's slope is closer to one (a flatter line), but one thing will always be true as long as you are not destroying and completely rewriting your story like it's a sand mosaic: THE MORE YOU REVISE, THE BETTER YOUR WORK WILL BE. 

Revise it once, it'll still be pretty crappy. Twice (with some editing) and you've got the level most commercial writers use as they pump out a book a year. Four or five times is what a lot of writers swear by. Then there are people who say the true story only really starts to come out around the 11th draft*. And all of these drafts are completely insular to the writer. This is before a single content editor takes a look or a sensitivity read or line editing. And then there's beta readers…and copy editing. Because peer review is part of the process TOO! 

*Not a random number. This is literally the title of an essay about revision as well as the title of a book that is a collection of essays about the writing process focusing on revision.

Absolutely NOT just tossed off during a month of cocaine- 
fueled benders.

It's interesting that you bring up Tolstoy. We actually know about War and Peace. It took him an ENTIRE YEAR and 15 drafts just to write the opening scene. He changed focus completely from the original intention of his work. He revised it even after publication in its initial forms as a serialized version and then six volumes (he pared it down to four). It took him six years to finish and shattered his health—he had migraines and got a terribad flu right as he was finishing that led to a LONG break from writing for a while afterward. 

So, you know…perspective. 

Even though self-publishing lets you maneuver around exactly as much revision as you want, the world is full of TERRIBLE self-published books by people who essentially didn't want to revise, and they didn't sell more than double digit copies, and even friends and family who shucked out a few bucks to be supportive smiled weakly and said "haven't gotten to it yet…but it's on my list" when pressed about what they thought. I'm not exaggerating when I say that you can literally tell some people did not want to hear a peer or editor tell them they had more work to do, so they just published their rough draft instead. And if you want to sell 37 copies (including five to yourself), you can do that. But most of us want to have a bit more to show for what is probably at least a year of our lives.

Thus….it's really hard to give you an exact answer, Sieran. The more you revise, the better the writing. That's just an axiom of writing… and really all art. It's like practicing as a musician or rehearsing as an actor. It simply MUST be done if the final product is to be more than an enjoyable hobby for oneself. If you truly want to be as small and niche as you say, you could probably keep it down to a full rewrite, a major revision, a tweaking read-through, and then the various stages of editing. But that's keeping in mind that you literally WANT to keep things modest. The writing equivalent of "I never want to be in any production bigger than my local community theater." Which is honestly and genuinely okay if it's absolutely in-your-heart true, but I wonder (and even "worry") how many people relegate their ambitions by convincing themselves they never WANTED anything more. 

My truly unvarnished advice/suggestion would be to dig into the revision process and see if you can't enjoy it. (Personally, I love polishing something once it's drafted—the drafting part is the harder, more annoying part for me.)  Try to take it into the two rewrites/two major revisions range before you start getting all that editing done. You may even find you can see the improvement enough to really start digging that part of the process and take it closer to the 11th-draft level.

So when are you done? I can't tell you that because there's no moment when it has objectively happened. It is up to the artist to basically (no, I'm not kidding) abandon the project strategically when the process of revision reaches a point of limited return that they are no longer willing to deal with. When they are satisfied that it is good enough for the eyes of the world. When the process of revision is merely polishing the stone a little more and no longer removing glaring imperfections.

It's not an easy question to ask yourself, but as you finish up draft one or two, and the prospect of how much better you could make it looms over that instant-er gratification, you might find yourself feeling like Wedge Antilles fighting AT-ATs in a rebel T-47 light airspeeder (modified to be a snowspeeder):



  1. Sieran. Bruh. I have written exactly zero books and published exactly nothing. I have the opposite problem, actually. I probably have single sentences that I have revised 84,789,372 times.

    Most of my writing is still inside of me. You have managed to word-vomit yours out!

    I am utterly impressed and envious because, while I may have about 150 pages of perfectly-polished prose that was mostly part of my MFA thesis, you have book after book to play with! Oh, if only I could get all of these books out of my head and onto the page in ANY form, bud, any form at all!

    The point is, even with my unbelievably low word count after years of writing... I AM a writer. You are DEFINITELY a writer. Hell, feel free to reach out if you want some help with editing. Since I am NOT WRITING ANYTHING - I have creative time on my hands.

    1. Hi LyndsayKate,

      Yes, you are definitely a writer! Sorry I didn’t mean to invalidate anyone—they were just my own little insecurities, haha. Also, it sounds like the quality of your writing must be very high! Quality over quantity, right? I believe my problem was that I took the “shitty first draft method” a bit too seriously, where I pushed myself to finish book after book. Yes, I cringed at how many woeful things there were in my writing, and I’m too embarrassed to show anyone these messy drafts nowadays. But I urged myself to keep going, because I took to heart the advice that, if you don’t practice enough, you’ll never develop your skills. Nevertheless, I knew deep down that I was in denial about my problems.

      Have you seen the meme about a ceramics class, where the teacher graded a group of students on the quantity of their pots, and another group on the quality of their pots? In the results, the highest quality pots were made by the students graded on quantity, because they got more practice in making the pots and they learned from their mistakes. The moral of the story, was to not be so perfectionist, or we would hamper our learning from our lack of practice. Yet…I would also say to not go to the opposite extreme like I did, where I focused so much on quantity, that I skimped on the quality. Yes, I got a lot of practice in writing, but hardly any practice in editing. So I was shooting myself in the foot in the opposite direction. I’m determined to start a rewrite soon, though. Better late than never, right? XD

      Thanks for your generous offer! Would you like to be beta readers? I don’t have any work that’s presentable just yet, haha, but I’d be more than happy to beta read for you if you’d like some extra feedback on your stories!

    2. No worries, Sieran - I was only concerned that you were invalidating yourself, and I hated to see it!

      I have, very recently, been writing just a little bit every day. Or more like writing down ideas of things I want to write, and researching things that would be interesting to write about, or that inspire ideas for my writing. I think this is where I went wrong - I stopped learning for a while. I stopped gathering new experiences and knowledge and lacked inspiration to do anything but ruminate over old work. My habit is to return to things I have already written and try to add to them or improve them, rather than daring to write something brand new. It's a very stagnant place to reside, it's lazy and a waste of talent, and I don't recommend it!

      I really dig the analogy of the pots. I am a perfectionist. I can be frozen in place by my perfectionism. If I can't write it perfectly, I won't write at all, and this is absolutely crippling my growth as a writer (and many other areas of my life). I think that somewhere between where I sit and where you sit is a balance point that must be discovered. After all, If I have zero pots, they can't be quantified or qualified. I'm just sitting here with muddy hands, mesmerized by the spinning of the lathe.

      I do have a story forming right now about dreams, prophecy, gods, and the ripple effect in an infinite, fractalian (This is not an official word, but it should be) universe. I have never written longform anything. My thesis was comprised of short memoir pieces and I don't wish to revisit them. I'll let you know when I have any length of work that is readable. I hope you'll do the same!

      In regard to your writing, if you still have the outline of your stories in your head, a re-write could be a great thing! Some people re-write before beginning revision. However, the revision has to come sometime, so make ready your red pen! It seems, with the volume of rough work you have put out, you are overwhelmed at the through of revision. Understandably! After pausing just now to read your further responses to others below, it looks like you intend to start small, and I fully support that path and it's what I was about to advise, though I suspected (correctly!) that you knew the answer already. You're on the right track. Keep going!

    3. Hey LyndsayKate,

      Thanks! Yes, I have a background in psychology, so I brainstormed how to tackle my anxiety. XD One common tip is indeed to start small. Thinking about too much at once, is simply overwhelming. Well, I started rewriting one of my earlier drafts, and wow, I'm loving it! I can see how much my writing style and my comprehension of the world have changed. I wrote this story almost ten years ago, so both my writing experience and life experience are, imo, greatly improving this draft already, haha. And I think I was right--a part of that fear was because rewriting is unfamiliar territory to me. I don't feel that nervous about it anymore, now that I've finally started.

      Oh, I actually feel less afraid at the thought of revision (as opposed to the thought of rewriting). So for one of my books, I spent a lot of time laboring over it, incorporating as many of my readers' feedback as I could, fixing lots of plot holes, enhancing character development, making the paragraphs easier to read, etc. This process was very messy and I was probably very clumsy, but at least I had some experience with major revisions, so it doesn't sound as scary to me, haha. But now I realized that it would be better for me to rewrite several times, rather than starting in-depth revisions right away!

    4. It's me again! How would you like to get in touch? I see your website linked, but I don't see a contact field. It looks like I can sign up to your website, though, so I can wait for your approval of my subscription? Otherwise, you can also look me up on Facebook. I don't think anyone else is called Sieran Lane, haha. In my profile picture, I'm wearing a black shirt and holding a can of Fanta Orange.

    5. Hey there! I didn't remember that people could even subscribe. Apparently, I now have four subscribers! Almost famous. I guess I better start writing some things and figure out how to use all the moving parts of my website. I created it as a home for my thesis pieces and posted a couple blogs... then abandoned it 😀 Thanks, Sieran. I can't wait to read some of your work.

      I feel I should warn that some of my memoir can be trigger-y. I mean, first person present tense creates a bit of a front-row seat to my trauma in a couple places. I welcome any feedback, always.

    6. Hey Lyndsay, sorry to bother you again, but even after you approved my subscription, I don't see any place where I can contact you, except in comments on your posts, which I could do, but we wouldn't be able to exchange MS Word docs (or another file format) of our manuscripts! Since the WAW blog is a public place, I figure we could DM one of our social media accounts with our preferred email address? (E.g. I have Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.) Either you could DM or I could DM, I don't mind. If you have any other suggestions on contact methods, please let me know! (Alternatively, you could send an email to the email I used to subscribe to your blog!)

      P.S. If you already sent a DM to my Facebook account, I unfortunately didn't get a message request. :( Usually message requests to me won't get filtered out, but with Facebook, you never know!

    7. I just sent you a friend request on the faceplace!

  2. Lovely answer, Chris.

    Personally, I have one book, barely started, but I have "completed" several short stories of varying lengths. I say "completed" because they *were* completed when I wrote them.

    Now, when I look back at a story I wrote a few years ago, I can see things with which I'm not happy, even though I was happy enough at the time.

    Naturally, I have changed as a person over the years which can affect how I see some of my work. For the most part, however, it's not the viewpoint - the story is as I meant it to be. It's that my writing skills have slowly, (Oh, so slowly!) improved and now I can see how to do needed rewrites that weren't made at the time of "completion".

    I try to view this with a deserved sense of satisfaction that I have evidence of my improvement. I *actually* get very depressed for a bit, then bite the bullet and accept that if I want to publish, I'm going to have to revisit everything.


    And again.

  3. Thanks for your answer, Chris! I hadn’t realized that I had bought into the “you must go through the whole writing process to be a real writer” belief. But yes, I felt pretty embarrassed, even ashamed, that I hadn’t gone through the complete process for anything I wrote! But you’re right. I do believe that if one writes, one is a real writer, so I should extend the same understanding towards myself. Perhaps we are (usually) our worst critic. A friend of mine published several short stories and poems in a university magazine, but since he hadn’t written anything in ages, he didn’t think of himself as a writer. While I respect his humility, he truly was being too hard on himself!

    As for feeling daunted by the thought of rewrites, I believe my fear stems partly from how unfamiliar I am with the territory. Once I get more used to the rewrite process, it should become less scary over time. Another reason for my fear, is that I’m thinking about too much at once. It would be more manageable if I do it step by step, rather than thinking too far ahead. After reading your post, I looked through the books I’ve written (they absolutely are rough drafts, haha), and decided to focus on this particular book. I’ll do the first rewrite of this story, and then think about my next steps after. I’m figuring out strategies to get myself started on this task, rather than to keep panicking and avoiding the issue! But I feel quite invigorated by this new course of action.

    Yeah, I know what you mean about people tempering their expectations, where they make themselves believe that they never wanted anything more. I thought about this question a lot, actually. Am I just too afraid of hurt and rejection, and thus I’m stifling my hopes? After much self-reflection, I realize that I’m more concerned about the quality of my work than about how many readers I have! While it would be cool if, for instance, several hundred readers bought my book, I feel less stirred by these reader numbers than by the thought of my book being actually good in quality (in my eyes). I’m not implying that my opinion matters more than other people’s, but I find that when I get positive feedback from readers, it makes me happy, but I still don’t think my work is good enough. Even when I got some incredibly flattering compliments (one reader compared my writing style to Roald Dahl’s!!), I know, deep in my heart, that there are countless weaknesses in my story that I need to fix. So…while I can see some strengths in my writing, I’m also aware enough to see many, many issues in my work.

    In a way, you could say I care more about the effort than about the achievements, that I’m more about the journey than the destination. I’m more excited about doing the writing, and making the book as beautiful as I can, than I am about how many sales or reviews I get. Come to think of it, I think I would enjoy rewrites. It could be one of those things I want to do, but still haven’t done because of some psychological barrier, usually anxiety. But I’m optimistic that I will overcome this barrier soon! Thanks again for your advice and encouragement!

  4. That's one of the toughest balancing acts, too, to find how to write in a way that can engage your readership in the same way YOU were engaged in the story whilst writing it.

    Some readers don't need a lot of fancy stuff, they can follow along on the same brain-skip pattern your writing naturally came out with and are just in on the reading to find out what happens, but other readers need to be hooked by pacing, characterization, sentence structure et c.

    I've found immense success in first-or-second draft short stories, simply because the readers were there to witness content and plot and didn't much care if I flubbed the characters or the pacing was off or the paragraphs were fractured. they were there, with me, engaging in a social discussion about the story, just happy to be included.

    but i've seen that readership enthusiasm go real dim real quick if the story was longform, or as long a haul as a novel. honestly, that's probably only *why* we have to edit novels as many times over and over, because the natural first to second chapter momentum isn't going to keep very well by chapter 10 or 20 -- so there has to be *structure* to play off the reading brain's center of focus

    which means Editing For Minutiae. :]

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.