Getting It Right the First Time

To Revise Or Not To Revise, That Is The Question…

Recently, I’ve been hearing a barrage of arguments from two different points of view – those who believe a good writer will efficiently produce a clean draft on the first go, and those who believe in multitudes of revisions. They both make good points, but I’m far more inclined to agree with the first.

Those who argue for revision state, “The first draft of anything is shit” (to quote Ernest Hemingway – apologies for the language.) I can’t argue. First drafts are… very rough. Sometimes you don’t know exactly where you’re going. Sometimes you’re forcing words out because – well, because true writers write, even if they don’t feel like it. And when you come back to read what you wrote it just looks like awful, awful stuff. Actually, it’s a relief to know Hemingway’s first drafts were as terrible as mine are. And that I can just rewrite the thing and throw away the original before anyone ever sees it.

But then, the other side of the argument is shouting that to make a living as a writer, you have to produce. You can’t waste days rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. Once you get good at your craft you will produce a decent draft the first time. In fact, they argue that rewriting only steals away the freshness and originality of your words.

Two writers I’ve come across who say to aim for as little revision as possible are Dean Wesley Smith (see this post), and Crawford Kilian (“As an efficient craftsperson, you should know how to complete a salable manuscript with little or no revision…” – Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy)

As for those who tell you to revise – just Google “how to write” and you’ll probably get millions and millions of people who tell you this. Including John Dufresne, who says, “Any writer who tells you he wrote his story in a draft is a liar or a loafer.” (The Lie That Tells a Truth) Oooo, the fight is on!

I’ve always naturally gravitated to not revising. It frustrated me if I couldn’t get it right the first time. For me, if it wasn’t right at first, revising didn’t seem to make it any better. I’ve gotten better at revising since then, mostly because academic papers for university come out pretty garbled if you don’t revise. But I still prefer as little revision as possible. I’m scared of stealing away my “freshness” (if I flatter myself I have any).

In the end, every writer has to find his or her own way. You’ll always have to revise a little, and some authors I enjoy were addicted to revising (yeah, I’m talking about Tolkien again…) It also depends on exactly what you’re writing, and whether you’re trying to make a living off of it.

What side of the argument do you agree with?

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Filed under On Writing

2 responses to “Getting It Right the First Time

  1. Great question to post Harma Mae. I land on the side of not revising much. When I write, I may stop and reread what I have thus far and maybe tweek it a bit. However, I do not spend countless hours rewriting things. I generally know what I want to say. It may take a bit of time to create, but when I finish…I finish. i certainly wish, however, that our local newspaper would work on revision. The spelling, punctuation errors and other goofs are very blatant. Hard to figure out what they are trying to say some days. If they would at least proofread, it would help!

    Great question to ask my friend!


  2. I have to say that without rewrites I would never write anything worth anything. I think it really depends on who you are. Some people need to rush with the story as it comes to them and clean it up later. Others are more careful the first time around.

    And then there are the people who are just so darn good and have been doing this forever. My guess is that rewriting is not required for them.


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