Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#24: Revise or Die

by Seanan McGuire

Now, those of you who have been following this series may look at today's topic and find yourselves scratching your heads. 'But wait,' you might say, 'wasn't essay twenty-three about revision?' You'd be right. Because here's the thing: we're going to be circling back to editing, revision, and critique quite a bit as this essay series goes on. It's that important. Which brings us to today's expanded topic:

Anyone who tells you that your first draft is brilliant, perfect poetry and deserves to be published just as it is and you shouldn't change a word and oh, you're going to be famous and make enough money to buy a desert island is either a) lying, b) delusional, or c) your mother.

Does it seem like I'm harping on this? That's because I am, a bit. We all have cheerleaders. We all have people who believe, truly and deeply, that we are the perfect special snowflakes to end all perfect special snowflakes, and that because we are perfect special snowflakes, we need a constant stream of validation, love, and affirmation, because otherwise we might melt. Those are wonderful people. Those are important people. And sometimes, those are the people we need to listen to the least.

We're all special snowflakes. We all need to turn on the heat. Ready? Excellent. Now let's begin.

What Do You Mean, Special Snowflake?

I'm pretty sure that everyone, from the sweetest saint to the cruelest killer, has at some point thought 'well, it's okay when I do it.' It's the human impulse that leads to sticking fingers in cake batter, cutting in lines, parking in the handicapped slot for 'just five minutes, I swear,' and being rude to customer service people. Because it's okay when it's you. Remember, you're special. The trouble is, we're all special, and if the rules don't apply to everyone, things start to fall apart pretty quickly.

The real root of the problem is that we really are all special, especially in the eyes of the people who are closest to us. We learn, with time, to forgive and indulge our friends and loved ones. I am tolerant of the fact that my little sister is incapable of finishing a conversation without getting distracted at least twice. My friends are tolerant of the fact that no matter what I'm doing or how serious the situation, I will always become distracted by pennies in the street or the sight of a cute dog. We learn to live with and encourage one another's specialness, because that's what friends and loved ones do. We let the people we care about be special.

So It's Good to Be Special.

Yes, absolutely. That being said, no matter how special each and every one of us happens to be, we can't allow that special to spill over into professional evaluation of our work. Got that? No one's story gets the special stick. Yes, we'll all use language in different ways. Yes, we'll all tell different stories, and yes, all stories are special. But a piece of prose doesn't become more or less special because of the person who wrote it. If two people write things of equal quality, they should be judged equally, and if one person writes something that's genuinely better, it should be regarded as such.

We have a tendency to be kinder to work from people we know, and this tendency only gets more pronounced when they're people that we also care about. Yet somehow we often forget that everyone else has this tendency, too. My grandmother never had a harsh word to say about anything I wrote, because she remembered me when I was seven and producing my first pieces of My Little Pony fanfic. (Look, I was seven.) The improvement in quality was so enormous that nothing else really got the chance to matter. My mother is better at being critical of me, because she knows that I can do better. No matter how good I am, she knows that I can do better. And that's what we need.

Every one of us is special. Every one of us has the potential to be better than we are right now, no matter how good we are, because the capacity for improvement is eternal. First drafts are filled with errors, accidents, and little things we didn't think through in that first white-hot rush to get the words onto the page. First drafts are our foundations, and they're meant to be shredded, mulched, and turned into second drafts. We will always have people who think that we're special. We have to show them that the most special thing we can possibly do...is improve.

This One's Short.


It's better that way.
© 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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