Revisions: What Every Writer Should Know

Writers talk about the revision process, taking time to go back into their work to reconfigure, tweak or even burn and start again. But why can’t the brain just jump to the polished end in the first place? Why does there have to be a process? Guest column by Laura Toffler-Corrie, author of The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz (middle grade, Aug. 2010, Roaring Book Press).
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Writers talk about the revision process, taking time to go back into their work to reconfigure, tweak or even burn and start again. But why can’t the brain just jump to the polished end in the first place? Why does there have to be a process?

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Guest column by Laura Toffler-Corrie, author
of The Life and Opinions of Amy Finawitz (middle
grade, Aug. 2010, Roaring Book Press). She has
already sold her second book, a young adult
story called The Accidental Sainthood of Jenna
Bloom. See her website here.

Cooking, for example, like writing can be a creative process, but when you prepare a meal you don’t say, “I’m going to make a chicken dish tonight for dinner. It will take me approximately six months to make three attempts at it. The first pass will be rough and not tasty. Then I will keep revising it until it’s delectable or my family will perish from hunger.”

Granted even after a meal is on the table you still might try to perfect it with a pinch of this or a dash of that, but you certainly wouldn’t grab someone’s plate away and tell him you’ll reheat it in a few days when the sauce is more likeable, the peas have more motivation and the chicken has journeyed through a more emotional character arc (beyond having it’s head chopped off, being plucked, wrapped in cellophane, cooked and eaten).

I think we writers need a revising process because first drafts are like tricksters, they seduce us into thinking they’re the best they can be, and the best that we’ll ever write. But this is a dangerous, and deceitful, proposition. And here are some signs to watch out for:

THE HEART IS AN IDIOT

Some people tend to fall in love with their first draft and are way too infatuated to see it as anything but ’the one.’ I can recall, with a certain nauseous affection, all those first drafts when I threw up my hands in exaltation and exclaimed, “A masterpiece! Huzzah!” Only to re-read said brilliant opus a week later and end up rocking my head in my hands muttering, ‘Oy.’

In a way, you do have to fall in love with your first draft in order to complete it, but that doesn’t mean you should be getting married until you get to know it better.

MISJUDGING GOALS

Recently, a wise, published writer friend of mine commented, “Not everyone who writes has to aspire to be published.”

If writing is your hobby, don’t bother with revisions. But if your goal is to be published in this highly competitive marketplace, you have one chance to make a first impression with an agent or editor. In today’s world, if a professional is interested, chances are that he or she will ask for a revision anyway. Many times this is a kind of test to see if you can incorporate their suggestions, meet a deadline and, most importantly, determine if you know how to make your work better. It would be very bad judgment (aka kiss of death) to say no. It would be tragic if you blew the opportunity because you had no practice or no idea how to revise your own work.

DOING THE JOB

There’s a difference between getting the job done and doing the job well. Can a person complete a book in one draft? Sure. Will it be a book that an editor will buy and other people will want to read? Unlikely. It is virtually impossible to incorporate all the elements for a satisfying read, i.e. character development, plot, description, etc. into a first draft. The brain can only concentrate on so many elements at one time. Often a first draft is the place for broad strokes. Revising helps the author develop nuance. In my work, I’ve found that it’s often the elements that were developed in later drafts that got the strongest response from readers. So:

HERE’S THE BIGGEST SECRET OF ALL

Revision is our friend. All professional writers know that revising intelligently makes their book better, improves their original vision and makes the story stronger, deeper, richer, funnier or more heart wrenching. After the initial resistance, you realize that revision can actually lead to the most satisfying ‘Huzzah!” moments of clarity about your work. Above all, revision is a process of discovery which is one of the most exciting aspects of being a writer.

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