You all hate revision, and so do I. But it has to be done. I don’t do a little of it. I do a lot.
Way too much because I revise to the point where I’m no longer improving but killing whatever worked in my story.
Sometimes I revise to the point where I’m telling an entirely different story and deleting the original one.
These are bad habits.
Ever see Six Degrees of Separation? Oddest role for Will Smith yet – It’s worth watching this movie just to see him playing a gay-pseudo-upper-class-elitist-overeducated-new-york-snob against the more natural snobs played by Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, and Sir Ian McKellan. NOT Will Smith’s typical role, and I prefer him in anything where he fights alien invasions or encroaching zombies. But it’s a good movie based on a great play (written by the brilliant John Guare) and there’s a quote in it that I think of when revising.
. . . how easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He paints and paints, works on a canvas for months, and then, one day, he loses it. Loses the structure, loses the sense of it. You lose the painting. I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher: ‘Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?’
‘I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.
Perhaps I need someone to take my work away from me at the right time. But no one else is going to do that; I have to force myself to do it. To stop before I’ve killed whatever was good in what I wrote.
I think part of the reason I revise so extensively is that I do not plan what I write in advance. I try to – sometimes I make an elaborate outline, sometimes I try to think of where a story is going in advance. But the vast majority of the time, I just have an idea, a glimpse of a thought, and I flesh it out as I write, and I have no idea where it will end up. Which is why I end with gaps and holes and conflicting information; in short, a muddled mess that needs extensive revision just to reach a comprehensible stage.
Some might argue that I simply need to force myself to outline more, but that isn’t going to happen. I know myself too well.
What I do instead now is force myself to only plug in the holes. Fill in the inconsistencies, fill in the gaps, and stop.
Here’s my process :
1) Reread all the way through to the end. This is necessary for me, because if I let myself revise as I go, I’ll revise the first two pages until the end of time and never get to the rest.
2) Take notes about major inconsistencies and holes.
3) Fill those in, moving along quickly.
Perhaps the most important part of revision :
4) Do NOT evaluate what you’ve written. If you agonize during this time over whether what you’ve written is any good, you will never reach a point where it is complete, which is far, far more important. Simply fill in the holes and stop.
5) Don’t give up or stop because you don’t feel that what you’ve written isn’t good enough. Of course it isn’t. Did you really think that what you wrote today was going to be the best thing you ever wrote? That would be sad indeed. What you wrote today was the best you could write today, and it has weaknesses and strengths. Finish it and move on to the next piece, which will be even better. Don’t get stuck rewriting this one until the end of time.
The greatest challenge for amateur writers is finishing what they’ve written. There are a helluva lot of people out there with pretty good writing skills and a passion to tell entertaining stories. Very few of them are capable of finishing what they’ve started, and a lot of the time, it’s self doubt and self judgment that get in the way. Don’t let that stop you.
Finishing what you’ve started is the most important step. Finish it and move on to the next.