More revisionism

A while back I posted this take on a very famous author’s five simple rules for writing. Now Joe Z. reminds me of an earlier debate about whether revisions are a good thing or a watering-down of one’s initial inspiration. My contribution to that talk, dredged from the depths of Joe’s comment fields:

Early to bed, early to rise; revise revise revise.

Beginning writers are commonly afflicted with two mistaken ideas: (a) you only write when inspiration comes over you (preferably late at night, while the bourgeois are asleep and the Muse comes skipping over the rooftops and springs through the open window of your garrett), and (b) your first drafts are always best because that’s when your inspiration is at its freshest.

As a former sufferer, I can attest that a third delusion grew naturally out of the first two: since the initial writing is always the best, I had to make sure everything was perfect before I could go on. This meant that whenever I hit a speed bump while barreling through a writing project, I would get stuck there, trying to solve a problem while my inspiration and fire dwindled away.

The net result was a drawerful of unfinished and half-realized projects.

In my case, the first-draft delusion grew out of my school days, when I habitually larked off on assignments until the very last minute, then fulfilled them in a frenzy of caffeine-drenched activity. Since these assignments almost always won good grades, I received positive reinforcement for a very bad writing habit. The fact that I worked for many years in the newspaper business, constantly writing for tight deadlines, didn’t do much to improve the situation. On top of that, I’ve been a Bob Dylan fan most of my life, and he’s famous for winging it in the studio and releasing first takes of songs because he wants that fresh, spontaneous sound. When that approach works, you get Blonde on Blonde. When it doesn’t, you get Down in the Groove.

First drafts contain nuggets of pure gold. They also contain plenty of boilerplate and second-hand phrases that need to be reassessed in the cold light of day. True creative freedom and productivity followed when I realized that
second, third and even fourth drafts are not only acceptable — they’re desirable. I didn’t have to stop when I hit a bad patch — I could always slap something in and come back a few days later with a fresh point of view. Nine times out of ten, continuing with the work took the story in a direction that solved the problem for me. Then I could go back to the rough patch and come up with a more artful way to set the stage for events to come.

Another great thing about this approach is that it allows you to become more humane with your writing regimen. I used to think that I couldn’t write anything unless I had a big bloc of time in which to pursue the Muse. I now know that I can accomplish more in a concentrated one-hour writing session than I can by putting aside an entire afternoon. I also know that I do my clearest thinking in the morning, so I schedule that brief session before the kids wake up. A regular writing schedule doesn’t make you a drone. Keeping a regular schedule means the Muse will know where to find you.

The marvelous thing about this arrangement is the fact that it aids concentration. When I tried to write for hours at a time, the least distraction would have me clutching my hair and pounding the desk like Roderick Usher. Now I think I could write on the lip of an erupting volcano and not even notice the ash in my hair.

So, let all tyros take note. You don’t have to get it all right the first time. Most of the time you won’t anyway. The only really successful first draft I’m aware of was written on the top of Mount Sinai. Personally, I think even that would have benefitted from a few additional drafts.

One thought on “More revisionism

  1. I think beginners stumble into these problems because they don’t view writing as a job. Even if one isn’t making money at it, one has to treat writing like any other job in the arts to be successful at it, meaning one has to study, set goals, practice, and work on each piece until one stretches the level of one’s current abilities, just as musicians do.

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