In Praise of Revision, or the Four Fails of Trying to Write the Last Draft First

by Mary W. Walters

When I was a new writer, I read a lot about how other writers wrote, and I became deluded into thinking that I could calculate how long it would take me to complete a writing project.

My reasoning went like this: if I wrote 500 words per day, I would be able to complete a short story in about ten days. If I upped the total to 1,000 words per day, I could finish a novel in 60 to 100 days, depending on the length of the novel. Those word goals seemed fairly modest to me, even a bit cushy: hadn’t I just been reading about writers who set themselves to write 5,000 words a day—and did it?

I got out my calculator and started pressing buttons. I reasoned that if I took a weekend off from time to time, and a week or two for vacation every year, I could still complete about a hundred novels and several collections of short stories by the time my 80th birthday rolled around. All I needed was the will power and fortitude to actually get the work done—and I was sure I had those in abundance. (I always feel that way before I start a project.)

It was then that I first faced what have come to think of as the “Four Fails” of trying to write the last draft first.

The first of these Fails occurred when I started my next novel. (It was my third, the first that would be published. My first and second novels had been abandoned part-way through, perhaps because they had failed to write themselves fast enough.)

I set out on the first day to write my 1,000 words, my schedule in hand and my determination firm. But I found I could not think of which 1,000 words to put down first—or, in fact, which one word to put down first. I told myself it was natural to feel this hesitation: with the schedule I’d set myself, a lot relied on the first word. The rest of the story had to ride effortlessly and smoothly on its back.

I dithered for days and weeks, growing increasingly discouraged as hour after hour passed away in fingernail-gnawing page-staring. My discouragement was laced with panic: if I kept dawdling this way, I might get no more than 90 or so books written before I hit my dotage.

By the time I did at last manage to get enough words down to constitute a first page, the second of the Fails kicked in: I found myself revising and revising and revising those first few sentences until the edges were worn off both them and me, and I could barely remember what vision had got me started in the first place. Still, I reassured myself again, if I got the beginning right, I could adhere to my schedule for the rest of the novel. It was only the first few paragraphs and pages that needed to be perfect. I’d loosen up when I got past this initial hurdle.

Fail the Third set in after I’d completed Chapter 1. In Chapter 2, something unexpected happened – Character X became more important than I’d originally envisioned and I had to go back to Chapter 1 and revise it to reflect the increased stature of X in the novel. More new plot developments in Chapter 3 required additional adjustments to Chapters 1 and 2. In Chapter 8, I realized that if there was going to be a smoking gun, I’d need to go way back near the beginning and hang that sucker on the wall. And if Character Y was going to fire said gun, I’d need to go back again and give her some precedent behaviour that would make her delivering the shot believable.

If I ever did write 1,000 new words in one day, the next day I’d end up revising them instead of writing another thousand, which would drop my average to 500 words per day. Two days later I’d be down around 250. Although the writing went more quickly as I neared the end of that novel, by the time the first draft was done, months and months had passed.

Done, but not Done

And still I wasn’t finished with the damned thing. In fact, it was at that point that Fail 4 announced itself as I realized that the final shape and potential of the novel had only really begun to suggest itself when the first full draft was down on paper. Themes had started to emerge that needed to be developed. Certain characters required additional depth and vibrancy. Some scenes went on too long and had to be trimmed; others needed to be expanded.

It was clear that I basically had to go back and rewrite the entire novel from the beginning—jettisoning some of the precious pages (and even whole chapters) over which I had earlier sweated bullets.

That novel took me a couple of years. By the time The Woman Upstairs had been accepted for publication (and, in the meantime, several short stories had been published, too), I figured I had learned enough about writing that the next time, I would be able to do a short story in six days, and a novel in six weeks.

But it didn’t happen that time either. In fact, the next novel that was published took me longer than the first. And the more I learned about what a short story could do if you really pushed yourself and made it the best that it could be, the longer it took me to write one of those as well.

I was growing so discouraged at my track record that I despaired of ever becoming a real writer. The real writers I had read about always seemed to write 1,000 words before breakfast and another 1,000 before lunch. I was proving to be a snail in the marathon of novel-writing. At the rate I was going, I’d probably never get more than a dozen novels written in my lifetime.

Why, I asked myself, did I seem to be incapable of simply letting go of what I wrote? Why did every sentence need to “sound right” to me before I could move on? Why did I need to hear music in each sentence, feel breath in every paragraph and chapter, find a coherent reality in the book as a whole before I could even show it to another person? Once the book was accepted, I’d just have to do more revisions anyway. Time was a-wasting here.

The Light Comes On

It was in finding the answers to my own questions that I began to learn about myself as a writer. In examining how I worked, I realized that I did all the revisions because I liked to do them. In fact, I loved to do them. Revision—getting everything just right, or at least as “right” as I could make it—was much more satisfying, deep and meaningful to me than writing a quick first draft could ever be. Most of the time, in fact, the first-draft part was total hell.

I realized that to me, writing was revision. I realized that for me, the first draft was just throwing down the clay that I’d then work with.

Everything I’ve done ever since has underscored the truth of this realization. I am Mary the Reviser: this is how I work.

Ironically, since I have learned this about myself, I can now get first drafts down as fast as my fingers can move across the keys. I write first drafts quickly now because I no longer worry about them: I know that before anyone else sees them, every sentence is going to be reworked and reworked, and that whole chunks are likely to disappear completely. For me, the important thing about the first-draft stage is just to get the ideas down on paper before I lose them: to make sure the clay I will be working with is at least somewhere close to the right colour and consistency. The form and detail will come later.

Now I know that when I start a novel, it is probably going to be three years before it’s finished, and that a short story will take at least a month—or several, if you count the parts where you need to put it away to let it rise like bread dough before you punch it down again.

By learning that for me, in writing, the pleasure is in the process, I have been freed from the tyranny of numbers and quotas. The end product is just a side benefit. I know that I would rather write one novel that sings (at least to me) from end to end than write 95 that consist of words strung over plots like carelessly tossed sheets on clothes racks. (Which is not to say that I do not strive at times to make my carefully edited text look like I’ve just tossed it.)

There are no fails in my approach to writing now. While there is no denying that to complete a project–whether it’s this blog post, or a novel—is satisfying, and a relief—the joy is in the work itself. The realization that what I love the most is digging has given the words “treasure” and “reward” new meaning.

Subsequent kudos from others and offers of publications become mere affirmations of what I already know: that I have done the best that I can do. I have given my work the respect it deserves. I have worked it until it is done, and I have seen that it is good.

10 responses to “In Praise of Revision, or the Four Fails of Trying to Write the Last Draft First

  1. I really love this piece, mary. You so capture what it is to write. And why a NANO type novel, is rarely more than the initial lump of clay with a hints of where the features, the arms and legs, will be. And why agents/pubs everywhere cringe in early december because they know a hundred lumps of barely-formed, 200-page clay will appear on their desks.

    I do admire that you can now just throw that clay completely start to finish before coming back to revise. Even though I know I will be back and it’s all in the revisions (I rarely edit, I almost exclusively revise), I still find myself revising even during that first phase. I just cant help myself. I need to see the words pretty to keep the flow. But, I have gotten better.

    Anyway, kudos, you concisely and vividly explain the process for many of us here. I enjoyed recognizing my own experience in it, as well as imagining you there…

  2. Mary,

    I much prefer revising to writing. Lately I’m getting better at writing and revising in my head before I put anything down on paper, but there is still the thrill of reading and reworking my own words.

  3. I actually don’t revise as much as most writers, I think, because I am big on outlines. Plus I try to make what I’m writing as solid as I can. That’s not to say I don’t rewrite, it’s just that I don’t subscribe to that old saw of “writing is rewriting.” Two or three revisions of just about any piece, of any length, seems to be good for me. And Mary, what I think you nailed here is to forget about daily word quotas, and rules around when to work (“It should be morning! And daily!”). I think writers that care too much about how other writers work don’t get a lot done because they’re not enjoying the process. A good writer loves their story enough that they can go on vacation for a few days and pick up right where they left off–and look forward to that–without fretting about the absence. I’ve been working on a novel since last October, and it’s my most ambitious project yet. It’s at about 95,000 words and I still have the last 15% to write. If I worried about not making my daily quota, or whether I wrote first thing in the morning (no thanks) or anytime I can and really feel like it, there’s no way I’d get it done. But I will get it done because the most important thing is enjoying the writing and revisiting that story as a matter of routine. If not daily, then as often as possible, although of course daily is ideal. Anyway, great post–I couldn’t agree more. I wish every writer would read this and just worry about the importance of revisiting their story as a matter of routine–even for 30 minutes a day–enjoying the process, and having the self-discipline to keep foraging ahead.

  4. When I wrote my first book in 2004, I had no idea how much I would absolutely ADORE the writing process, including all of the nitty gritty editing and revising. Great post!

  5. I can identify with this totally, Mary! My problem now is that I’m trying to revise a finished novel, only I can’t seem to write a revised paragraph or chapter that is acceptable to me. I quit in frustration after I’ve barely started. Right now, I feel as though I don’t have the ability, knowledge, or whatever-it-is-that-I-need to revise it successfully (meaning, so that it’s actually good).

  6. Larry Anderson

    Mary, thank you for your post. My process and questions are similar and I wondered if “real” writers had the same issue with constant revising. The clarity of your voice and writing inspires me…perhaps I should revise that article I just completed.

  7. Yes! Exactly!

    Which is why my first novel, the very first novel I ever wrote on paper, is still unfinished after many years.

    But the last two are sitting on my desk, waiting for one more revision.

    Thanks!

  8. Cecile Edwards

    Mary,

    Can you stand hearing you’re right one more time?

    I was SO sure my first draft would be the last. My typical writing day was ninety percent polishing, honing, tweaking, and only ten percent composing. I never moved on until so-called perfection was achieved, until exactly the right words and constructions were found and the virtual page sang to me, my harshest critic.

    After three solid years of this I began to lose writing voice, often lost track of plot and seemingly my mind. But I was able to slog on toward the finish line because when I got there I truly would be finished. Or so I thought. I’d paid ahead, you see; I’d edited and revised on the hoof, so to speak. Never mind that these constant interruptions hobbled the creative process and dulled awareness of contradictions and unintended conflicts. Forget about seeing the bigger picture when all these flawlessly polished fragments blinded me with their gleam.

    With your astute observations firmly in mind I’m now determined to finish at a sensible pace and revise for as long as it takes. Thanks for sharing those observations. Always good to know I’m not alone.

    Cecile

    • Mary W. Walters

      I never get tired of hearing I am right! (LOL!) And I have learned nothing . . . I just made a schedule for my next novel. I think I need to imagine a light at the end of the tunnel, even though I know it’s going to recede and recede and recede . . .. Thanks for reminding me of my own post!

  9. Dear Writer Mary W.,

    I absolutely love your article here on writing chores, which at times can stink, yet “I absolutely” (again, sorry but so true) “agreed” with all you wrote and loved your creative, concisely, gorgeous wording, and awesome work(s) in whole friend!!!

    I intend to get going myself as a writer, of whom I’ve been now of course, yet as writers we all know the vast and oft times; abhorrent side to it all, of which some of the idiots in the business can conjure up for us! “Jeez Louise” already guys, next we’ll be giving physicals and blood of our own in signature… What I see here and hope we all can and do, I surely feel it and believe so is…………………———————-A sort of vividly, concise and such a sincere bonding amongst us writers, a hell of a great thing man!

    As writers, even those we may not be given to aid, or even simply guide as we see them helpless, maybe unwilling to listen or take our constructive criticism; let’s all be so ever prone in laying down the foundation for them! Trying to help them, as I feel has happened here man, and is so awesome and positively radiant! For even if a writer doesn’t like constructive criticism, surely from fellow writers who do give a damn, then why write, right (ha, ha, nuts)? We for sure must be mindful and oft times disregard some criticism or suggested alterations, or the piece may be simply destroyed, as though it were a once only dirty premium car, now tagged, and with busted lights and or mirrors; all we ask or are expected to try and sincerely consider is to “consider” what others truly attempt giving us, thinking best intentions, but “we don’t use it unless we truly feel as they do???” Surely as Mary, so beautifully laid the foundation of her article and used such beautiful analogies, and even visual analogies of all kinds, one of her best most memorable to me is: “How she throws the mud for the building, and bricks in such a fashion, she hopes to envision all her content and no doubted words as she returns! Having enough she so hopes, to make perfect and beautiful building(s) with later glorious attempt(s) where she shines (love it) (novels, short stories, articles and such).”

    To listen, to read our fellow writers, sometimes even the simplest of articles, quotes, prose, poetry, or most notably to me: “Mantras of Beauty, Ancient Proverbs, “the Art of War,” “The Art of Happiness -Dalai Lahma” such and so on and differing inspiring books, music, art, movies, activities, camping or anything? For “all of us who take quill in hand, so we may create, create and create the best we are, lead in hand right to we hope, pray, meditate on and wish with all we’ve got friends?”

    “To Mary, keep writing and wow, can you ever write inspirational great works to inspire, uplift and give those armor who may indeed need much of it at certain moments in time!!!” Sorry for my long novella, Mary, it got long! Hope you know you lifted me tonight while putting good feelings inside me when I needed as such friend! Also to all who commented I’d have commented or at least given a thumbs up, but know I read all content and very much enjoyed and pondered quite much more, than I’d even anticipated so thank you to “Mary, and fellow friends of support always can we count on each other (wicked awesome)…………………..————————;-)”

    Blessings, Success and Infinite Peace Friend Mary,
    Rich;-)

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