I once told my teacher Harry Crews that I liked to write, but I didn’t like to rewrite. I’d never had anything published other than a few articles in a school newspaper. I was a naked little hatchling when it came to creative writing. Harry scowled at me, took a sip of his tall boy, and then put the can back in the bottom drawer of his desk.
“Ms. MacEnulty, the real writing only happens after the first draft,” he said. Because Harry was God, I changed my attitude about revising and rewriting that moment.
In an interview in the 1956 issue of the The Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway had the following conversation:
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
Novelist Elisabeth Hyde, author of the wonderful book Crazy as Chocolate as well as several others, once told me, “Beginning a new novel is daunting because if it’s going to be anything like my others, the story line will evolve as I write. And if this means throwing out 10 pages or 1000 pages, so be it, if that’s what it takes to help me figure things out. I guess after going through this four other times (that includes the novel in the back of my file drawer), I’m comfortable – if resigned – to the fact that this is all part of the normal process of writing a novel.”
Generally, your first draft is usually where you’re just finding out what it is you’re writing about. Anne Lamott advises writers to go ahead and write a “shitty first draft.” Give yourself permission in that first draft not to get it right. It may be that you know exactly what happens next and next and next. Great. Keep writing.
Don’t worry about the descriptions or the metaphors or even your spelling—especially your spelling. In fact, I suggest that you turn off your spellcheck and your grammar check. If there’s any way that you can permanently disable the grammar check on your computer, do so. It is an evil idiot that will lead you terribly astray. As for spelling, wait until you are completely done with the piece and then do a spell check. But spell checking never replaces a good eyeball-proofing.
After the first draft, then the real work begins. Even though I actually enjoy revision now, I still have to trick myself into doing it sometimes. I will usually write the first draft of an essay or a story by hand. Then I revise it as I type it into the computer. Of course, there will be more revision after that, but a good chunk happens in that first typing. When I am writing a book, I will print a draft once I’m fairly happy with it, and then retype the entire thing to force myself to consider every word and every scene. When I wrote my screenplay, I had a couple of people read an early version. It wasn’t even quite finished. After listening to their feedback, I changed some things and finished the first draft. Then I printed up the first draft and had two friends read the entire script aloud with me. This step allowed me to hear the script and identify the things I didn’t like. And my readers gave me valuable feedback.
So revision is a process of getting feedback, of letting ideas simmer, and of looking at each sentence until you “get the words right.”
- Get feedback from two to three people on something you’ve written. Choose one suggestion or question from each of them to address.
- Take a piece you have written and retype it, changing words where appropriate.
- If you don’t usually write by hand, try it sometime. It doesn’t work for everyone, but those of us who do it, swear by it.
- Make a list of 20 of your favorite words. Use at least ten of them in a 250 to 300-word piece of writing.