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August 2022
 
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Thoughts on Writing

#23: Embrace Revision

by Seanan McGuire


I think we've all been tempted to say 'the first draft is good enough' and move on to something new, rather than going through the often-painful process of trying to edit our way down to the heart of the matter. Many of us may have managed to get away with it a time or two...or even twenty, in the case of high school and college-level creative writing classes. Which brings us to today's expanded topic:

For the sweet love of all that is holy, edit, proofread, revise, and practice the art of self-critique. I mean it. There is no one on this planet so good at this game that they can just throw a fistful of words at the page and declare it brilliant. Needing to revise does not make you a failure, and becoming a better writer isn't going to take that need away. Embrace the revision process as a chance to dig down into the heart of your text and make it everything that it deserves to be.

Revision is a huge and tangled topic, as is revision's sister, editing. Some people will argue that a really good writer doesn't actually need to edit or revise; a really good writer will always get it right the very first time. While it's true that writers will get better with practice -- writing is a skill like any other, and even those who start out with more raw talent than others will improve or decline according to how much they work at it -- you're never going to meet a writer who has improved to the point that they no longer need to review their work.

So there it is; that's what we're going to be talking about today. Ready? Excellent. Now let's begin.

Trapdoor Statements.

The trapdoor spider is one of Nature's malicious little miracles. It builds its web in a shallow little tunnel and lurks, almost totally concealed from casual view, until something tasty comes wandering along. Then, without warning, it pounces, dragging its prey back into the darkness to be consumed. Seem a little gruesome and Crocodile Hunter and non-writing-related? On the contrary. The trapdoor spider is a perfect metaphor for certain sneaky little trapdoor statements that wait, eternally patient, to leap out and snare writers of all skill levels. Here are a few examples:

"Only lazy writers need to revise. I get it right the first time."
"I don't have time for revisions."
"That's what beta readers are for."
"The first draft is rough but sincere, and readers will respond to that."
"It's only romance/science fiction/fanfic/whatever. I'm already better than most of the other writers."
"I've never had to revise before, I don't see why I should have to start now."

How many of those have you used as an excuse to avoid revision? How many of those have you considered using as an excuse to avoid revision? How many of those have you heard coming from the people around you, whether they be close friends or loose acquaintances? Trapdoor statements are dangerous things, especially given the human tendency towards moving with the herd. If I say revision isn't necessary, and Dave says revision isn't necessary, why should you buck the trend?

Because it's what's best for your writing. Because revision is how we learn to improve. And because I'm calling them 'trapdoor statements' for a reason -= listen to them too closely and you just might wind up at the bottom of a deep, dark pit with no idea of how you're supposed to get back out again.

The Ten Percent Rule.

The Ten Percent Rule of Revisions is a simple one, and one that holds true for almost every writer I've ever known:

Second draft = first draft - 10%.

See? Isn't that simple? To get from first draft to second draft, you need to lose approximately one word out of every ten. This can sound impossible, especially when you're starting with something that's 150,000 words long. Lose 15,000 words? Are you serious? That's an entire chapter! That's not killing your darlings, that's flat-out genocide! You can't do it! You won't do it! But then, as the editorial pen begins to move, you'll find yourself taking out the wishy-washy modifiers, restructuring the overly-convoluted sentences, and removing the words that just don't need to be there. And it adds up! One word at a time, it adds up.

I've found that even when I think the Ten Percent Rule is overly strict or overly ambitious, my second draft almost always equals my first draft minus ten percent. (The big exceptions to this rule are the second drafts that involved so much rewriting that they were essentially draft one-point-five, rather than being a true refinement of existing material. I apply the Ten Percent Rule primarily to drafts that don't add very much new material. It's the only way to keep things remotely sane.) What's more surprising is that the ten percent is almost never missed. The ten percent comes out of the fat of the material, not out of the meat of it; it makes things better.

The next time you sit down to revise, keep the Ten Percent Rule in mind, and really consider how many of those modifiers you need. Maybe your lawn that is wholly, utterly, completely covered in dandelions just needs to be 'completely covered,' or even the easier, inclusive 'covered.'

Make your story stronger. Trim the fat.

Aliens Stole My Manuscript.

Many people prefer to edit their material after it's been sitting in a drawer or otherwise neglected for a matter of several months, causing the mysterious 'alien text' effect to kick in. Once the alien text effect has started, it becomes much easier to look at your own material with a critical eye, because it reads like it was written by somebody else. Don't believe me? Go read something you wrote six months or a year ago, and haven't looked at since. Odds are good that you'll recognize it for your own writing, because narrative style and word selection are an author's fingerprints, but it's still going to be new and strange to part of your mind.

I love the alien text effect. By the time I finish writing, revising, and rewriting something, I have no idea whether it's bad, good, or completely unremarkable. My quality gauge is broken, at least where that particular project is concerned. Once the alien text effect kicks in, my quality meter returns, and I can actually enjoy the knowledge that I've created something awesome...or admit that I've created something in need of a lot more work. Alien text gives us fresh eyes on our material, and lets us see it for what it really is. Whether that's a good thing or not will vary.

Reality Television Teaches Us Much.

I like to joke that I run my own little reality show. I have a circle of proofreaders and editors who regularly get seemingly impossible challenges thrown at them, and who rise to the occasion time and time again, making my books better than they could ever have been if I were trying to work in a vacuum. Your mileage may vary, but I still recommend finding at least one person you can trust to shred your work in a polite, objective manner. It can be your best friend, your agent, or your wife. It can be all three, if all three are willing. Just make sure you have somebody ready to play reality show contestant for you, and shoot for the big prize: a clean, exciting story.

No Right Way To Revise.

There is no right way to revise. The Ten Percent Rule is almost universal; you could still fall into that ten percent. Some people need to wait for the aliens before they can really start slaughtering their darlings; I find that waiting for the aliens makes a work turn a little stale and unappealing. Some people need an entire reality show, and others just want to read things to their cat. Whatever works for you, that's the right way to do it.

Just watch out for the trapdoor statements. They're waiting for the unwary, just like their arachnid cousins, and they'd be happy to eat your heart.
© 2010 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue was published by DAW in September of 2009. A sequel, A Local Habitation, was released in March 2010.

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