There is high value in revising along the way. What I mean by this is revising even while you are still writing your first draft. In the last post, where we talked about getting feedback at every stage, I made the point that writing is not a linear process, despite what we may have been taught in our early years. And part of the reason for this is that we are constantly evaluating and rethinking what we have written.
Listen to podcast episode #34: Revising Along the Way
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There are people whose process is to write straight through the first draft without looking back, getting the story out of your head and onto the page as quickly as possible, so that the work of revision can begin. National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is an entire organization devoted to this idea. And it does have some merits! It is possible to overthink the first draft, to spend days, weeks, or months just rehashing the beginning over and over without making any forward progress. And of course we don’t want that.
But here is the other side of the coin: if we blast through our first draft without any pauses to reflect on where we are and what we’ve done so far, we run the risk of finishing a 50,000-word manuscript that we have to rip completely apart in the revisions stage. What if, instead, we could craft a first draft that has a sturdy enough frame to maintain its basic form over multiple drafts? This would allow us to focus later revisions not so much on the foundational elements but rather on the things that will make the story come alive and sing.
So how do we do this?
Ideally, you are planning your story in advance so that you have a framework to revise against. But even if you are “pantsing” your way through a first draft, you can still do what I’m recommending today.
Let’s look at a typical writing week, which for each of us is different so I’m just going to use mine as an example. I write most weekday mornings for one to two hours, depending on the day. (Notice I said most weekdays…I don’t get to it every day and I let that be okay.) But I do write often enough to see some forward movement on my project.
Each week I take one of those sessions and set it aside strictly for revision. I’m not looking to add more words, although it may result in that. Rather, I’m looking back at one chapter, scene or section and asking myself the following questions:
Do I know why the protagonist is making these choices?
Am I showing on the page the emotions behind the protagonist’s decisions and actions?
Also, since I’ve made a plan regarding what this scene, chapter or section follows and precedes, I can ask myself a few more questions, including:
Are these events, decisions, and actions a result of what came before?
Do these events and actions lead the protagonist to make the decisions that are coming next?
While revising sections of an incomplete first draft, we’re not looking for line edits, although if you’re like me you can’t help but fix grammatical mistakes when you see them. We’re also not looking for other small fixes that can come later. Right now we are only focused on how this scene fits in with the plot beats and emotional beats that the story needs in order to make sense. After we’ve done this, any leftover time might go toward looking for places where we can make the characters, setting, or social situation a little more three-dimensional by bringing the reader in with sensory details, reactions, and other tools of “showing vs. telling”.
I am, of course, a book coach who works with writers in the early stages of writing a novel. What that means is that clients send me pages weekly or every other week and I give them feedback to use in the very revision work I was just talking about. If this is of interest to you, I invite you to visit my services page and learn more. I hired myself a book coach for the first draft of my work in progress, and the feedback she’s given me has made a world of difference in the strength of my overall story. Whether you hire me or someone else, I can’t recommend this service enough.
Waiting to revise until you have 50,000 words is like loading a grocery cart with a blindfold on and hoping you got what you needed to make the meal you wanted to make. There is a better way to do it, and that way is to set aside a little time each week to intentionally revise what you’ve recently written against the larger plan of your story.
Because your story deserves it.