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The Value of Revision

13 July 2011

Here’s another excellent essay on writing by Dave Farland. Dave talks about how he revises his books. He identifies six revisions he likes to do on a novel (he’s written over 50).

Dave has a different take on revisions than Dean Wesley Smith, whose criticisms of rewriting generated a lot of discussion here. Incidentally, Farland is an admirer of Smith and Passive Guy would be surprised if the admiration weren’t reciprocated.


 I’ve come to feel over the years that I make more money by writing better, not faster. Oh, I can write pretty fast when I want to, but the quality goes down, and then I’m not happy with it, and I think my fans aren’t as happy with it, either. I say this in spite of the fact that some writers out there do well with the “single draft” method of storytelling.

So I worry that new writers, feeling desperate to get their work out, might not be revising quite enough.

Be your own judge. With the first draft of my latest novel, Nightingale, my wife read it breathlessly in just a few hours, as did my son. When my wife was finished, she said, “This is the best thing you’ve ever written. Put it up for auction, and don’t you dare take less than a million dollars for it.” I told her, “Well, it will have to go through a few rewrites first,” and she seemed astonished. She thought it was great. On the level of story, it worked wonderfully for her, but it wasn’t there for me. I’m on my fifth draft of NIGHTINGALE now, and it’s working much better for me. It’s almost ready to show.

. . . .

There’s a certain part of me that hates studying a piece of writing over and over, but it’s not until I’ve been through it a certain number of times that I feel good about it. For me, that number is something like 5-7 times.

Typically my first draft is a “discovery draft,” where I begin playing with my characters, the world, the conflicts I’m dealing with, and the themes that I first imagined when I outlined the story. Hence, my characters might seem a little undeveloped, or just plain wrong for their roles. Or maybe arguments go on too long, or not long enough.

. . . .

Draft three lets me play with the wording, put things precisely the way that I want the story to read. I think a lot about my tone and character voices on the third draft, and I worry a lot about clarity. Can the reader understand this? Or do they feel a little lost? Does the scene come alive? Can you tell that the protagonist is speaking by tone of voice here, or do I need a dialog tag? So I do a lot of soul searching as I write.

. . . .

The fifth draft allows me to catch dropped words and typos, but the real purpose of the fifth draft is to “Boost” the story. By this I mean, I want to make sure that there is plenty of dazzle in the story—powerful metaphors, great hooks, and so on. So if I find a section that I think is a little weak, I look for ways to “boost” it, to make it better.

Link to the rest at David Farland

PG pulled this from Dave Farland’s email newsletter on Monday and scheduled it to appear on Wednesday because it sometimes takes a day or two between the email and the website post. PG suggests that most fiction writers will want their own free subscription to Dave’s newsletter. Click here to sign up.

David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

4 Comments to “The Value of Revision”

  1. I’m constantly rewriting during the process of writing; the story changes, the characters (I think) take on more flaws, vulnerability and therefore become less steriotypical. I have no clue as to how many drafts I go through as I don’t write a full draft and then go back and re-draft; it is more a process of flow, meaning a gradual coming together of story line and characters so that when I sit down and read it through, it flows. I, however, have only written three novels and published one which has given me the time and the freedom to keep revising. It blows my mind to hear of someone writing 50 novels in a life time. Kudos to you, Mr. Farland. And to Dean Wesley Smith for the reminder that there is no right way to write along with his nod to Heinlein for the five-point blueprint for getting your book out there.

    • My observation is the transition from writing the book to getting it out there is difficult for some authors, particularly if they’ve experienced rejection before. When doubt intrudes, they choose another rewrite.

  2. Agreed.

  3. Admittedly, I’m new at this, but I don’t really know my characters until the story is complete. I don’t see them fully until they’ve made tough choices and lived with consequences. Once I’ve seen that, I need at least one revision to reinforce why they make the decisions they end up making at those crucial moments.

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