How We Write: Revision intro–scratching the surface…

David Kaplan says in A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction, “The purpose of writing a story is to rewrite it.” I taught a brief intro to revision a couple of weekends ago. There wasn’t nearly enough time. I like to teach this part of the writing process hands-on, over several hours at the very least. An entire day as part of a retreat is best–that way writers can bring in their WIPs and dig into the techniques, fussing about until they figure out how some if it works best for them. But the response to our limited time at this conference was overwhelming positive, regardless, and I promised my students I’d get more specific out here in my How We Write blog category. So…here ’tis. More details to come in the following weeks. Then maybe we’ll tackle my approach to planning through character. But let’s start with my very favorite thing–rewriting!


Like the above quote says, no book’s done with just a single draft in your pocket. Not even two drafts, if you aks me. You’re not done, just because you have your first thoughts down on paper (or in the computer). Once you’ve got that good stuff behind you, it’s time to make it even better!

Feeling a little cranky yourself yet?

Yeah, this motivational post is going to be a little heavier on the tough love than most.

Finishing  your first draft is just the beginning. It’s merely the end of your planning. For those of you who don’t outline your plot and character ahead of time (I’m shaking my head now. Can you hear the tense spots in my neck popping while I do it?), the draft is your only planning. But for even those of us who put serious thought into what we’re going to write before we actually do, we still don’t know for SURE what’s going to happen until that magical creative thing that is putting words onto paper happens, and the story itself takes over.

I’m a firm believer in the creative flow of drafting. The power of discovery. The synergy of planning and experience and momentum combining to create something magical. BUT… That something magical, that completed draft, is only the beginning. It’s not everything it could be. It’s not ready to leave your mind and your heart behind. It’s not all it can be. Which means, it’s time for the REAL work to begin…

Kaplan tells us that ”You need three things to be a good fiction writer…talent…a knowledge of craft…and just as necessary, a devotion to revision, to the merciless re-working of your writing until it is the best it can be.” And he (and Jenni and I) aren’t talking about looking for typos or grammar errors or tweaking your prose so it pops just so, though all that’s important eventually.

What I teach to craft students is re-writing, not copy editing or proof reading. Deconstructing what you’ve done. Figuring out why it works and why it doesn’t. Asking yourself questions like:

  • What did you do the way you planned to do it?
  • What took on a life of its own while you drafted, and how did things evolve from your planning.
  • Does the opening, the middle, and the end work?
  • Does your antagonist’s POV and conflict and motivation arc convincingly throughout the story?
  • How about your antagonist?
  • How about your external plot? Your subplots?
  • Secondary characters and themes and symbols and setting? How effectively do you use these?

And then once you’ve pulled all that and more out of your story and looked at each piece individually:

  • How do you decide what to do with what you have?
  • How you want to make it better?
  • How do you make this beginning you have the best they can be?
  • How do you get the pieces of your story to work with each other?
  • How do you put them back together again, into an even better story than you first drafted?

THAT’s rewriting a novel.  Not an easy process. Not a path for the faint of heart. In fact, it makes a mess of your story while you’re doing the work. It has to, so you can see exactly where what you’ve done needs the  most work.

rewriting mess

But rewiting is a process that, if you master it, can take your writing and storytelling to a level you never thought you’d achieve.

Just like with the planning phase of storytelling, some great writers will tell you they don’t revise. And they’ll be telling the truth. Except the vast majority of them ARE rewriting, they’re just doing it while they draft. By going back and reworking each scene they’ve already written, over and over, instead of pushing forward in the story they’ve yet to create. They’re rewriting WHILE they’re drafting. Which might be great for the reworking part of their process, but how does it limit the creation that happens when they draft, or prolong the time it takes to produce that final story?

When I teach draft writing (another blog topic for another blog day), I encourage you to not break up that forward momentum and opportunity for discovery into shorter bouts. I’ll ask you NOT to go back and rewrite until you have your beginning, middle and end down on paper. I could go on and on, but I won’t tempt the crank-o-meter more than I already have for now…

Rewriting that is so closely tied to your planning.There are techniques for breaking down your process and overcoming your fear of revision. And if you’ve spent time planning what you meant to write before you began drafting, rewriting is your chance to revisit those early goals, refine them with what you’ve learned as you explored your draft, and make your story shine even brighter.

So, to wrap up this introduction… You should make time in your writing process for the rewriting that must be done before you send a draft in. You should hone your rewriting skills just  as proactively as you develop your skill at writing great characters and point of view and dialogue and plot and setting. Because it’s the rewriting that makes all these things better. It’s how an author makes a completed story seem effortless to the reader, when the writer’s spent months or years creating that world. Rewriting is how you know you’re getting the most bang for your buck out of every sentence and scene and chapter and part of your story. It’s how you are, in my opinion, at your MOST creative–when you’re mining for the very best your draft can be.

Next Wednesday in How We Write, we’ll dive into more specific revision techniques. Join me, won’t you?

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