The Art of Revision


by Terri J. Huck

Blog_Terri_revision art

“Revisions” by Chris Riebschlager is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Writing, like just about any creative pursuit, is a process. That process begins with exploring ideas, writing a first draft (which is where many people romantically think writing ends) and then revising, revising, revising.

Writers who are now in the throes of National Novel Writing Month are in that starry-eyed first-draft stage. That is a necessary step, but it isn’t where the writing process ends.

When I taught intro composition at a community college last spring, the students didn’t bat an eye when in the very first class, I asked them to write about their experiences with writing and what they wanted to learn. They were used to doing that sort of free writing in high school, and most of them liked it. After all, it was the easy part.

I quickly learned that though many of them knew how to write, they knew almost nothing about rewriting. They were dubious and some looked panic-stricken when I explained that revision was a necessary step that typically takes much longer than it does to write a first draft.

Most writers think of subtraction when they think of rewriting, and that is part of it. But revision (which literally means to see again) is so much more. Yes, it’s about the painful process of deleting scenes, descriptions and whole characters that do not serve the story. But it’s also about adding meaning and depth.

Revising is about turning that torrid love affair into something that can stand the test of time.

When you come right down to it, readers read for story. Something of importance needs to happen, events need to be appropriately paced, and characters need to grow and change. All those things are hard (some would say impossible) to do in the searing heat of writing a first draft.

Sol Stein, teacher, editor, novelist and author of “How to Grow a Novel,” said:

“The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be writer is their attitude toward rewriting…. Unwillingness to revise usually signals an amateur.”

Writing a perfect first draft is not the point.

It’s an impossible goal — and an unnecessary one. Free yourself from that expectation, and by all means, go all out for NaNoWriMo or whatever deadline you set for yourself. Get your first draft down fast and furious, full of passion. Go hog wild, and don’t censor yourself.

Once you have all that material out of your head and down on paper (or pixels), then the real work begins of shaping and giving structure to the raw materials.

In future blog posts, I will show you some ways to take the sting out of revising by being more strategic about it. I hope you’ll begin to see that although revision might not have the head-over-heels thrill of a first draft, it has an artistry and seduction all its own.

Terri J. Huck is an editor and a managing partner at Possibilities Publishing Company. For more about her adventures in researching and writing historical fiction, go to TheSmellOfGunsmoke.com.

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