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

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

When to Revise (Mailbox)

I feel like I'm not writing when I'm revising. Does editing/revision count as writing?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Monday.  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, but likely only if you ask a question. Process questions are always welcome.]  

Valery asks:

I love your advice about motivation, writing every day (even though I don't strictly speaking follow it) and so on. Nevertheless, I finished the first draft of my novel last year and have been editing/rewriting it ever since.

My question comes in two parts. The background is that I have always been very good at starting projects, but not finishing them or seeing them through to a completed work. For my 2012 New Year's Resolution, I looked at the 10k words or so I'd done of my big novel (which is absolutely, "the book I would want to read") in the previous 5 years and decided that I would work on nothing else until it was finished. I would set aside what time I could and write during that time, forget about how good or bad it was, forget about getting it right or going back and redoing the last thousand words. And it worked. I finished the story. There was a whole bunch of things I needed to change, and do better (because I have learned so much more about, and am much better at, writing than I was when I started the novel 8 years ago), so the editing process has taken a while and a lot of effort. But I finished the first draft. My problem is that I still don't feel like I have finished the project, but if I put all my time and effort into the rewriting/editing process then I feel like I'm not writing either, just reorganising.

The 2-part question is, 1/. When you say to write every day, how much does editing impinge on the time for writing, or does editing and writing count as the same thing, at least as far as the advice goes? 2/. If I should be working on a new writing project to keep the writing juices flowing, how can I keep focused on finishing the editing of the first one as well, and not let it be just another abandoned project?

My reply:

Revision is a beast.  And not the awesome kind with the multiple backs either.

(Before I dig into my tortilla-less burrito–which will make a lot more sense in one paragraph–let me take a moment to say that I am almost through the hopper. I think I have one more question to go before I start cannibalizing random conversations I have with people on the street. "Hey you. Ask me a question about writing. I said ASK ME A QUESTION ABOUT WRITING OR I'LL SHIV YOU!!")

Back to the non-shiv question though: revision is also more important than tortillas in a burrito when it comes to good writing. I mean if you just want to jam your hand down into a pile of ingredients, that's fine, but good writing needs to be held together with some cohesion.

I'm not sure how exactly a fork would fit into this deeply-flawed 3am metaphor.

If you strapped me to a table and there were a laser about to bisect me, junk first, and you demanded the secret to being a writer,  I would tell you to "earn your er." I'm going to presume you tolerate my enigmatic answer and wouldn't just speed the laser up with a wave and a roll of your eyes. If you asked me how to be a good writer, I would tell you to write every day and get feedback from time to time. If you asked me how to be a published writer, I would tell you two things: finish what you start, and second, revise.

Finishing what you start...well that's just a matter of doing it. You've done that part, Valery. And it hurts and it's hard but that's the critical first step. The world is filled with flittery writers who flit from one half finished project to the next and never actually finish anything. If that brings them joy and fulfillment, who am I to judge? But for those who talk about their career as a writer and "making it" and write Stephen King and Neil Gaiman wondering why they're not famous already, it's going to be critical to finish things.

As for the rest, I want to divide my answers up because there are definitely two answers going on here. There is THAT WITH WHICH WRITERS AGREE ™ and there's WHAT I DO™.

You guys (not you personally Valery) ask me a lot of questions about the uber-basics. You ask me a lot of questions about grammar. You send me a lot of hate mail. You have a few questions about craft. Once in a while I field questions about publication or blogging. But I don't get a lot of process questions beyond the basics. So it's going to be really important to make sure I draw this distinction.

Writers diverge pretty spectacularly on process. Every writer forages their own path that works for them. They all mostly agree on the basics like writing every day or the importance of revision, but after that it's the fucking Hunger Games of what works. Vonnegut would write the page he was on over and over until it was perfect, and then he would go on. Stephen King writes out his whole novel (I'm pretty sure in two or three sittings based on how prolific he is). Then he goes back and reads the whole thing for revisions.  I know several writers who revise as they go. You should be doing whatever it takes to get the right words on the page in the right order.

So when I tell you what I do, I'm really just telling you what I do. If it works for you, great. If it doesn't, forget it. Find what works.

What most writers agree on. 

1-You have to revise. 

No getting around it. Gotta do it. Cost of doing business. Get 'er done. Insert cliche here.

You'll get better with it as you get practice at the skill of writing. Eventually you'll revise a little as you write, but you're always going to have to do it. Always.

I know some of you are thinking "Not my novel! It just needs a little polish for grammar mistakes." Yes, YOUR fucking novel. You need to revise. Everyone needs to revise.

To date I've heard of only a single published novel that didn't have major revision work done on it (Gilead by Marilynne Robinson) that was sat and written just about cover to cover, and she said she was contemplating it for over a decade before she wrote it–so really she did revise; the process just happened in her head for years before she actually started typing. But whatevs, that's one book out of thousands. One.

You have to revise.

2- Actually rewrite at least once. 

Here's an interesting tidbit that 99% of published authors agree on. And unfortunately garners the reaction from almost any non-published writers that they're too cool for school. You should actually completely rewrite your manuscript at least once.

Word processing on computers has given us the ability to just open the text file and edit it. Which is both holyfuck blessed awesome and more horrible than crotchstench after a long summer day of mini-golfing without undies.

The less detail I go into about that, the better.

Obviously fixing the fact that you wrote "I find your farce enchanting in the mooonlight" without rewriting the whole page or having a liquid paper/white out disaster is nice, but the problem is that we're less likely to fix big issues in our stories if we feel like it's possible to get away with being lazy.

Given half a chance we really, really, really don't want to perform major surgery on our story, even if it's a first draft.

We won't cut whole chunks, rearrange, cut characters–all the things that rough drafts really need to become good. We get invested in the structure, and often end up polishing a turd because of it. We're more likely to make the big changes that will really help our story if we actually rewrite the story since we're going to have to rewrite the whole thing anyway.

Even consumable literature authors (who write mainstream books with cultural resilience on the level of your average TV show) suggest completely rewriting a working novel at least once. Authors aiming for a more "literary" product suggest you completely rewrite multiple times–five or ten even. I would caution you not to let this process keep you from finishing something, but it's good to keep in mind.

So print that badboy out, and COMPLETELY rewrite it from beginning to end. Your brain will engage the writing in a whole different way. (I'm sure some day they'll hook writers up to MRIs and confirm this.) You will find SO much more you should revise, reword, rethink, restructure, cut, and completely change than if you try to poke at a preexisting manuscript.

I know I know. "Not my novel."

Revision. Puppies. And enthusiasm during oral sex.
3- The more the better.

This should go without saying, but it doesn't. Your piece of shit first draft novel that you revised once for 20 hours is still a piece of shit. (That's not a personal attack. So is mine. Mine probably more than yours, actually.) Revision is the soul of good writing, and long hours are the prerequisite for even passible published work.

The longer you spend revising, the better your work will be.

There's some divergence between authors about how many major revisions you ought to write. (This is in addition to the complete rewriting, but these revision sweeps can be done on your existing text file.) Some say at least three, and some say you don't start to get to the really good writing until the eleventh draft. But notice that even your disposable airplane paperback author is saying at least three revisions. And that's before calling in the editor.

There is a point at which endless revision becomes the method by which a writer doesn't finish a project and doesn't take the risk of putting their work out there. I'm sure you know writers who endlessly tinker on their finished stories. At some point you have to let them go out on their own. But for most writers their curse goes the other way. They think it's perfect and there aren't any possible revisions to be made long before most readers would find it palatable.

4- Breaks between revisions.

Almost every writer takes a break between each incarnation of their revision.  Between your first and second draft is absolutely critical and should be at least a few weeks for a longer work, if not a month or two.  You need to forget what you meant and all the places where your brain was doing the heavy lifting instead of your writing. And I can't stress enough that writers (especially me) sometimes get a hard-on for turns of phrases or particular words and they use them TOO DAMN MUCH. A couple of months will help you get some fucking perspective on how annoying you were. When you go back, your work should have that strange, familiar/unfamiliar feel. Like you're poking around the old neighborhood and half the stores are different, the arcade has been torn down to make room for an Ikea, yet Lou's Bagle shop is still right where it was, and the lakeside apartment complex never replaced that sign you broke when you were eleven. That's the only mindset in which you're going to be able to catch your own problems.

Between each revision you can wait a little less time. You don't need to wait months between your fifth and sixth draft–maybe just a couple of days.

5- Yes, you need peer review, and almost certainly a professional editor.

You do. Get over it. If you are working on a short story, you can probably get away with self editing, but even then you need someone who isn't you to take a look at your work. And if you have a manuscript as long as a novel, you're going to need to feedback from someone who can really help your writing pop.

You can't see your own mistakes. You know what you meant, so you are the worst person to try and identify where you were unclear. You might be filling in too many gaps in description with a memory that your reader doesn't have or just think that a scene you're picturing is perfectly described when it's a train wreck.

This isn't just about a proofreader either; you need an outside reader.

A professional editor should be a no brainer on a novel-length project. Yes, they're expensive, but yes, they're worth it. There are just too many reasons you need one. And too many pitfalls if you don't have one. Almost every novel you've ever found even remotely readable has had a professional pass by an editor.

6- Stick with it until you're done.

So I've tried to keep it to things most published/accomplished writers agree on. This one gets a little murky. Not every writer does this the same way.

Many authors have one project they're writing and one they're revising basically at all times. Other writers work on one thing at a time and do things like read intensely during those breaks I talked about in number four. Some authors pause to write short stories from beginning to end including revision while they are breaking between drafts of their novels.

But all of them stick with what they are doing to see it through. The stories of the novel that took twenty years to write (or something) are actually quite, quite rare. They don't put the draft away to give it some air and never come back to it. Nor is their revision process an endless recursive loop of improvement. Eventually what all accomplished/published writers have in common is that they stay with a project until it is done enough to put it out in the world.

What I do.

I tend to share your feeling, Valery, that if I've spent all day revising, I haven't written much, so I break up my days and always include some raw, unfettered writing–even if it's just free writing or journaling. I'm fresh and sharp in the mornings and I usually do most of my revising then. At night I have much more driving stamina but not so much precision to notice stuff so I do a lot of drafting at night.

So I'm almost always writing one thing at night and revising another in the morning.

Also, I'm a tweaker. (Not like that.) I am constantly going back and tweaking what I've written before. In fact, a good writing session almost always starts with me getting into the mood by going back five or ten pages and reading through what I already have. That's actually what revs me up to do the writing itself. Now I still need to completely rewrite, but doing all that tweaking does mean that when I go back over things in revision, it tends to be pretty close to how I want it. It's more like polishing tarnish and less like using sandpaper and a heavy hand to rub out a deep scratch.

That keeps me writing a lot even as I'm revising. Valery, I hope the suggestions help you, but don't hesitate to do whatever works for you.


  1. Thanks for the reply!

    I feel like the current draft is a rewrite. Yes, with huge chunks cut, rearranged, etc. That's partly why it's been over a year in doing it. I seem to already follow most of the agreed-on advice (which I find encouraging), and I know there's another rewrite to come (because I looked back at the early pages of this one and thought "who wrote this crap?").

    I can't be a tweaker: as I said in the original email, going back and redoing the last thousand words was a habit that had been preventing me finishing stuff, because I would just redo the same passages again and again instead of doing anything new.

    Since I sent this question, I have found a balance: I'm writing a story in instalments purely for fun, for my sister, which gives me motivation to do some work on it every day (since I know I have an eager audience waiting) while still keeping the main focus on the rewrite. I already know there are things I need to change again on the second rewrite (like, chunks I want to cut or rearrange) but the principle for me remains: get to the end, then go back.

    Thanks again for the advice!

    1. Yay. I'm glad you've found your own way that works.

  2. For the longest time, I misunderstood how rewriting worked. I believed that if I rewrote my novel, I would just create a new set of mistakes, and I would never finish editing my book to satisfaction! But recently, I realized, like you mentioned here, that it's easier to get yourself to do deep structural changes if you rewrite, rather than just doing edits on your first draft. My story especially needs rewriting because, over time, due to some personal life changes, my writing tone and style have drastically changed. I felt stuck for so long on what to do, because my story became this huge mess of inconsistent writing. But much later, I realized I could fix this problem by rewriting the entire work in my new writing style!

    Yes, I was concerned about how to do the revisions properly without falling into the trap of editing it forever, and never getting it out there. So I was very glad to look at some different ideas on how many revisions to do, when to take breaks, etc. Every author is indeed different, but it was helpful to read about how you and other authors approach this!