Saturday, May 28, 2011

Good Writers Revise Their Writing

I've worn many hats throughout my life. When I was younger, I considered myself a runner--and a pretty good one at that. But I didn't start off good. In fact, I started off as one of the worst and would often be incapable of finishing races without walking. I got good over time by not "cheating myself," as many of my teammates did (and I'm sure these self-cheaters existed on other track and cross teams in junior high school and high school too). It wasn't my natural talent that led me to win dozens and dozens of races; it was my determination not to cheat myself (well, most of the time anyway).

While browsing Facebook earlier this morning, I saw a status update on the importance of revision from Michelle Obama, and it didn't take long for the unknown (at least to me) writers to start creeping out of the woodwork and refuting the importance of revision. Here are their main arguments:
  • The first thought is often the best thought. This can be true, but there's a difference between a great thought and communicating that thought. Revision affords writers the chance to make their brilliant thoughts easier to see.
  • Revision takes the "energy" out of the first draft. The energy in the first draft is felt profoundly by the writer. I know, I've felt it myself. It's comparable to runner's nirvana at times. But let me tell you: In most cases, the person who feels that energy the most is the writer. Don't mistake your elation in writing a new manuscript with the elation a reader will feel reading your first draft that hasn't been touched. For the reader, revision adds energy to the manuscript by making it easier to read.
There are two main reasons I can give for why some writers are so revision averse. First, I think some writers are afraid if they revise that they'll never get that first draft back again. This, of course, is easy to remedy--just save the first draft in a separate file. The second reason is even simpler: I think some writers are just getting lazy and cheating themselves.

Do I re-write every manuscript a dozen times? No.

Have I had some pieces published that were exactly the same as the first draft? Yes.

I don't think writers should start making changes just for the sake of making changes. That said, even those pieces that didn't change, I went over them probably a dozen times to look for imperfections that might make the poem better. Heck, I may have even tried re-writes and gone back to the original draft (I'm talking poetry specifically in these instances). But that's part of what being a good writer is.

You build something; you try to knock it down; and if it holds up, you try to find an audience for what you've built.

Now there may be writers who don't agree with this reasoning, but that's okay. They can decide to take the easy way out and avoid revision, but--as with runners who take short cuts or who don't finish off every run--they'll only be cheating two people: themselves and their readers (if they have any).


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Bkloss said...

Great post!

At first I was afraid to edit my ms for fear of losing that "energy". Well, I saved draft one and it's undergone three reconstructive surgeries and a massive transfusion since. My current draft has more "energy" than I ever dreamed of and through each revision, I've been able to extract that "idea" to where it's clearer. I look at revisions as non-spiritual saviors :D

Leigh M. Lane said...

I agree! I always save new drafts under new filenames, but rarely do I revisit an older draft after I've revised. I redrafted my latest book at least ten times, and it sat on the back burner for a few years in between drafts. I wanted to kill that book by the time I was finished with it, but the prose, grammar, and punctuation are practically perfect (at least as perfect as they're going to get). Redrafting is a necessity in writing. It's tedious, but totally worth it.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Barbara, I used to have trouble with revision. Now, I'm to the point at which I'm still revising even after pieces are already published.

Lisa, that's a familiar feeling--wanting to kill the manuscript after so many re-writes--but readers appreciate it.

Jules said...

Oh, revision is probably the best part of my writing process. It doesn't matter what I am writing, I know I can always improve on it somehow. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Robert!!

Unknown said...

Isn't revising like breathing? There are times when I consciously have to pry my mind away from something I've written, knowing that I am revising it to death. In certain situations, I let the imperfect stay because I need to remember I'm flawed and let my flaws be seen so I can't wiggle away from the knowledge later, but even then I have to play keep-away from the edit key.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I'm one of those writers who believes revision is necessary - I just really suck at it! :p Love your blog, you have great tips!