Revision Is Not Optional (And That Should Be a Relief)

I find tone and voice—the fear of getting them wrong—is the most paralyzing thing that keeps me from getting started.

- Jardine Libaire, author of White Fur

At the Writer’s League of Texas January 2018 3rd Thursday Panel

I wrote recently about the insights several authors shared at a Writers’ League of Texas panel about overcoming fear of the blank page by allowing yourself the leeway to play and have fun when you’re starting a new project.

But here’s something else that occurred to me as I thought through the wisdom these authors shared: as writers, we often forget that a first draft is simply that. A first draft. No matter how strong that draft is, revisions will be necessary.

Most of the time, the mere idea of revisions makes us cringe. It means taking apart our painstakingly crafted work and putting it back together again. It means rearranging plot and rewiring characters. It means “killing our darlings.”

And, yes, the revision process is tedious and painful and frustrating. But isn’t it also liberating? We get so bogged down in getting every scene, every paragraph, and even every sentence perfect, that we often paralyze ourselves, unable to move forward until what we’ve already done is just right. But when we remember that nothing is set in stone—that revision is not optional—that gives us the freedom to keep moving.

In her incredible book, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott writes an entire chapter on “shitty first drafts.” I highly recommend the whole book, but this passage encompasses the point I’m making here:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

So when you find yourself grinding to a halt under the pressure to perfect each page before moving on to the next, take a step back and remember that this is your first draft. Let things be messy, and work things out as you go, knowing that by moving forward you’re likely to find the answers to the questions that were stalling you before. And, above all, remember that revision is not optional. You will have the opportunity—the responsibility—to come back and improve each scene.

Stuck in the middle of your first draft? Need help with that revision process?

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