Tag Archives: john dufresne

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

Does Writer’s Block Exist?

By photosteve101, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Lately, I’ve been coming across numerous writers who insist writer’s block doesn’t exist – it’s just an excuse for writers not to write. I can kind of see that point of view. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure writer’s block exists, because I suffered from it for five years.

“Writer’s block is a fabrication,” declares John Dufresne, in The Lie That Tells a Truth (a pretty fantastic book, if you’re into how-to-be-a-writer books). He goes on to insist writing is like any other job, and no secretary refuses to come in to work because of “secretary block.” And then comes a surprising sentence – maybe if writer’s block keeps you from writing, you never really wanted to be a writer in the first place, anyway. After all, we always make time to do the things we love.

Well-known blogger and best-selling author, Scott Berkum, agrees: “writer’s block is a sham.” He insists that no other creative profession – architects, painters, composers, etc. – complain about the pressures of coming up with something new the way we writers do.

But if writer’s block doesn’t exist, it’s the most frustrating non-existent disease I’ve ever had. But the kind I caught seems to be a strain only mildly related to the kind Dufresne and Berkum describe. They both state the defining symptom is not writing at all. But that wasn’t my problem. My problem was being unable to write anything good.

After all, when I had writer’s block I wrote three novellas (approximately 20,000 words each), and abandoned at least five manuscripts halfway through, not to mention those I started and abandoned after a page, or the short stories that went nowhere. The problem was that every word I wrote was trash. You know that lovely trance-like state you get when writing, when you can see into your characters’ heads and the words just flow right out of your pen? Yeah, that didn`t happen.

In other words, the high that had addicted me to writing in the first place had disappeared. Wow, interesting metaphor…

I used to love describing fantastic dresses. But after writer`s block struck my prose was reduced to: “She wore a red dress with a brown collar.” I used to love to make up fantasy worlds. But though I kept putting my characters in different settings, none of the worlds seemed real. The characters didn’t seem real. And if they don’t seem real to the author, there’s no way a reader will buy in.

Both Berkum and Dufresne insist that part of writer’s block is not just the fear of writing, but a fear of not writing well. A fear of failure. This I can agree with, because during those five years I was writing, but each word I squeezed out of my pen was so wrapped up in anxiety and doubt that my stories couldn’t stand up on their own. Every word on the page was painfully and laboriously extracted from my brain.

So maybe writer’s block comes in different varieties. My variety centered on a fear of writing badly – a fear of writing badly that caused me to write badly (paradoxically). To avoid this, Dufresne assures us that a good first draft is a poor draft because you haven’t taken risks. And Berkum urges, “Deliberately write badly, but write.”

And you know what? Allowing yourself to write badly helps.

If you’ve got writer’s block right now, check out The Lie That Tells a Truth, Chapter 3. There are some great suggestions in there. Or you can check out Scott Berkum’s post, “Writing Hacks, Part 1.”

Your turn  – do you think writer’s block exists?


Filed under On Writing