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Tradecraft: Be a Revisionary

For the last month or so I’ve been up to my eyebrows in various writing and editing projects.

I just finished a round of edits on Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s new book (due out from Rabbit Room Press later this year). I’m busy writing a short story set in Aerwiar for Andrew Peterson’s forthcoming Wingfeather Tales. I’ve been my wife’s sounding board and source of editorial feedback for her story for the same project (her contribution is amazing!). I edit Rabbit Room posts almost every day and work with writers on the development of those posts. And on top of all that, I just finished the third draft of an original stage musical (The Battle of Franklin) that will premiere this fall. Whew. That’s a lot going on at once.

In the midst of all these processes, it’s come back to me again and again how important it is for a writer to understand that his work is broken into two distinct parts. First comes the work of creation. We sit our butts in a chair and write. We beat our heads against our desks until words trickle out onto the page (or screen), and then we bemoan their insufficiency. Some of us sit down feeling like we’ve been handed a glorious vision and bear the terrifying responsibility of translating that vision into actual words. Others sit down feeling like empty vessels from which nothing of value is likely to be poured and work under the crushing fear that that feeling will prove true.

But eventually we wind our way through the gauntlet and end up with something complete-ish. That’s the first part of writing. You’ve got something written. Something to work with. Something to show for your time (though you probably shouldn’t show it to anyone yet). Now it’s time for the real work.

This is writing folks. Writing is revising. And make no mistake, revising is a learned skill. Pete Peterson

The second part is revision. And this is where the exciting stuff happens. Once you’ve got that raw material to work with, that’s when you can start shaping it into something useful—something readable. And it’s important to realize that while, yes, you worked and slaved over that first draft and filled it will every great idea you could muster, your first ideas are rarely your best ideas.

Once you begin the process of serving your work, rather than merely creating it, you’ll begin to see how those first shapes and scenes and characters will suggest other more exciting, more vibrant shapes and scenes and characters. Do not be troubled! This is where the real magic is happening. Go back. Excise, rewrite, rework, reimagine. The best writing is rewriting. Believe this.

An example: I wrote the first draft of The Battle of Franklin (a Civil War musical) in about two weeks. When I was finished, I thought, Huh, this is pretty good. So I sent it off to the director for some feedback. We met and discussed it and his basic reaction was a hesitant “Huh, good start.”

This was not my hoped-for reaction.

So I took a look at what wasn’t working and studied it a while. Then I took a hard look at what was working and studied that a much longer while. Time to revise. Exciting new ideas emerged. I combined characters. I cut others. I reimagined entire scenes. I rethought the underlying structure. I gave lines from one character to other characters. And so on and so forth. A couple of weeks later, a much better draft emerged.

I thought this draft was good for sure, so my wife and I read it aloud. Not bad, but back to the drawing board. Revise. Revise. Then off to the director again.

This time we scheduled a reading with actors. Nothing will point out the flaws in your work like listening to another person read it out loud. (I recommend reading aloud everything you write: fiction, poetry, non-fiction—everything). The reading went well, but it shone a light on a lot of serious issues. No problem. Back to the writing chair. Add new scenes. Cut broken scenes. Rethink everything. Ask hard questions. Why does this character exist? What does this character want? What is this scene accomplishing? How does this metaphor illuminate the theme?

I just finished a third draft last night, and today I’m 100% sure the writing is done. The characters have real meat on their bones now. The conflicts are clearer. The staging is simpler. The resolution is more satisfying. Oh, and I’m also 100% wrong. It’s not done by a long shot. It’ll sit for a little while. Then I’ll read through it again. The director will read through it again. Others will read it. We’ll all poke holes in it, and eventually I’ll go back to the desk and start on a fourth draft.

But when I look back at the development, I’m astonished by how far the story has come. When I wrote the first draft, I couldn’t have imagined the complexity of the third. And that assures me that the fifth will reveal something I haven’t yet imagined.

This is writing folks. Writing is revising. And make no mistake, revising is a learned skill. You have to practice it, study it, study others, and hone your ability to draw out the good and excise the not-so-good. It’s harder than it sounds. It requires that you trust other people to reveal to you your blind spots. And it requires that you learn to mistrust yourself, or at least to mistrust your initial sense of the completeness of your work.

As an editor, I can tell you that the best writers are those who listen rather than those who insist. That doesn’t mean a writer has to think his editor is always right, but it does mean that a good writer will consider the possibility and doubt his own certainty before he makes an editorial decision.

So love your writing, but learn to be truly passionate about your rewriting. Your readers (and editors) will thank you.

(Note: This post revised four times.)


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