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.
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
"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
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
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
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
© 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.
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.