Home » Writing Advice » The Art of Revision

The Art of Revision

20 December 2016

From Literary Hub:

The late John Gardner, my writing mentor more than thirty years ago, once told a story about revision that has stuck with me. He said he gave a reading, and during the Q&A a woman raised her hand and said, “You know, I think I like your writing, but I don’t think I like you.” His reply was memorable. “That’s all right,” he said, “because I’m a better person when I’m writing. Standing here, talking to you now, I can’t revise my words. If I say something wrong or not quite right, or maybe offensive and it hurts someone, the words are out there, public, and I can’t take them back. I have to rely on you to revise or fix them for me. But when I’m writing, I can go over and over what I think and say until it’s right.”

I think Gardner captured the heart of the creative process. We often hear that 90 percent of good writing is rewriting. We also know that writing well is the same thing as thinking well, and that means we want our final literary product—story, novel, or essay—to exhibit our best thought, best feeling, and best technique.

When I compose a first draft I just let everything I feel and think spill out raw and chaotically on the page. I let it be a mess. I trust my instincts. I just let my ideas and feelings flow until I run out of words. It’s fine for an early draft to be a disaster area. I don’t censor myself. When I have this raw copy, I can then decide if this idea is worth putting more effort into. If so, then with the second draft, I clean up spelling and grammar. I add anything I forgot to include in the first draft and take out whatever isn’t working.

Then the real fun begins with the third draft. (Despite its importance, art should always be a form of play.) That’s where I work on what I know are my creative weaknesses.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

Writing Advice

35 Comments to “The Art of Revision”

  1. Well, whatever works for you. Each author has their own way, none is better nor worse than the other, only different.

  2. Now that’s the good stuff.(revised from earier written response)

  3. So he’s a pantser. Nothing new there. Writing in such a way that you have to discard most of it seems like a horrible waste. But if it works for him….

    • Even an extreme plotter like me goes about the writing in a chaotic way when creating the actual scene that will have the planned bits in it. Writing is inherently chaotic, there being so many different ways to say the same thing – almost.

      I discard 10-100 words for every one that makes it into my novels. Maybe more. Not in drafts, but in notes.

      And, with my slow brain, in person it makes me almost mute unless I know my topic or interlocutors extremely well.

      But I don’t think of it as a waste, any more than a sculptor thinks of what must be removed as a waste: it just doesn’t belong there. But it had to be there so there was something to chip away at. By the time I’m ready to start writing, I have created that solid paralellepiped of marble I need for my work.

      • Even an extreme plotter like me goes about the writing in a chaotic way when creating the actual scene that will have the planned bits in it.

        Extreme plotter? Take a look at CPM software used for project management.

      • Love that, Alicia. I’m a panzter all the way. I wasted many precious months one year trying to be a plotter. Either way, I end up cutting 20K-40K from every 85K novel I write.

        • You are what you are – and you write the way it works for you.

          Try other people’s suggestions if you don’t have your own way yet (and occasionally after to see if you’ve missed something), but you are your own best judge of what works.

          I would never tell someone to change any more. More damage has been done by people who claim their way is the only way than any other bad writing advice.

          And I’ve only written on part of a mainstream trilogy so far, but it was 167k when published, and I doubt the rest will be shorter.

    • I’m a pantser, but I write a single draft, do some clean up of the loose ends, and I’m done. It has nothing to do with pantsering.

      I’m with Sheila above – whatever works for you, do that.

      • I discovery write (not a fan of panster!) 🙂 and I usually end up cutting 2,000 to 4,000 a book. Sometimes more, but not on average. Then maybe a few hundred here and there as I try to work out where the story is going next, but I can’t imagine many a plotter not deleting that many just the same, because sometimes some words just don’t work.

        I cannot tolerate revision after the fact. I will abandon a book rather than go through the torture of moving one scene, so I learned long ago to write tight and keep things straight as I go so I can guarantee a finished book.

        I’ve only today decided to stop chasing after a need for speed, because I happen to be a slow writer and it’s time I accept that. I just can’t do 1,000 an hour without veering off into ridiculous plot development territory. Truly, maybe I should be writing silly fiction, but I like the other stuff better.

  4. Some writers run things through their heads until they think they have what they want, others do better writing those first thoughts down and then rewording it until it’s to their liking (and both types can find themselves rewriting when a plot-hole crops up or it’s just not going where they intended it to.)

  5. “We often hear that 90 percent of good writing is rewriting.”

    Excuse me while I go re-read “Pulp Speed” by DWS.


  6. I’ve learned more from rewriting than I have from writing.

  7. Its not just the writing process of the author. But what the reader likes.

    When I read authors who don’t rewrite, I always think it needs some rewriting. (I will not name names) I could read the first or fifth draft of my own novel…and boy do I prefer the latter. I agree with ^^Incog^^ I find I improve most when rewriting. Sometimes rewrite other authors scenes when I think they could be improved, especially bad dialogue.

    I did not rewrite this comment, so give me a break!

    • Comments are not supposed to be perfect. I still check mine – and I still leave typos.

      Which is why I like Disqus – I can go back and edit what I wrote whenever I want, even months later.

      The five-minute edit is working for me again here, PG. I love it. I’m trying to use it every time.

    • I agree. But in addition, I can spot a book that’s been through too many rewrites and critique group sessions as well. Those books are perfect. The soul and voice of the author has been edited out of them. They’re so polished they’re dull.

      • Agreed, you need to learn to balance things out. I think that as I improve and gain confidence the number of rewrites will diminish. Thanks to articles like this, yes they are helpful, I question the need to rewrite my work, holding me back just enough…I hope.

  8. I commend him for his response to the woman. Luckily, I’ve never been insulted at a reading. Though I did have one woman tell me I looked younger and thinner in person. I took it as a compliment. My promo photographs, however, went home and cried.

    • I remember meeting a famous SF writer at a club meeting at Princeton I attended – 25 years ago? (not an alumnus, staff)

      I don’t remember who it was, but he was very disappointing in person. I expected such a famous person as someone whose writing I liked to look like a rock star.

      I remember that when I write in my jammies. At least he was presentable, though scruffy, in public.

  9. I like Disqus too for our political news site. Our commenters love to know they can ammend, and take down if they wish something they wrote long ago as times change, family situations change, jobs change etc.

    I wish PG used Disqus for that reason too. More freedom, and also can have plug in for replies that do not close off reply button as sometimes happens at PV, as well as a small plugin for ‘likes.’ There are so many times each day that I would like to ‘like’ or ‘thumbs up’ many comments at TPV

    as per how to write with rewriting. Maybe. Depends on project. Some come full born like aphrodite on the half shell. Others take wrestling with the angel from which one walks/limps away injured.

    I loathe when writing is reduced down to ‘what somebody said long ago’ about their own writing, as ‘the only way.’ Loathe it because it erases the incredible and varigated process and trance states and weird happenings and usual flat road that many an author travels in order to bring the work. NO erasing the writer.

    • “I wish PG used Disqus for that reason too.”

      I’m just as glad that he doesn’t. Nothing looks worse than you giving a strong and correct rebuttal to something, only to have the person change what they said to make it look like you are the one that was being the north end of a southbound mule.

      Being able to change/fix your writing sounds good, but not so much in debates — and it can backfire on you, just ask that guy who decided Hans shouldn’t have fired first! 😉

      • ah, I wouldnt worry about people ‘changing’ what they wrote Allen, in order to make you look bad, or anyone.

        My experience as a moderator of a sometimes ‘flying-objects’ comments section on a political news blogsite, is that people who are convinced of what they are convinced about, remain convinced of same. We’ve had disquis for ten years and no one has ever changed their comment that I know of. However I do remember one person in midst of contentious divorce who took down one comment that contained name of Ex.

        There is also, for those concerned, cached site and also I forget what it’s called, the ‘farback machine’ or similarly named that can look up such a scenario in in instant. But, I havent seen people in debates change what they said. They are adults and apparently mean what they say. I dont know that they are trying to ‘win’ a debate online of all places, although if that’s what theyre all about, Id just say, let them cut their notches on their imaginary bedpost. lol

  10. Rewriting (NOT correcting mistakes/wrong details) is procrastination, nothing you ever do will be 100 percent perfect. Sometimes it easy to tell when an author has rewritten too much, the prose comes off sterile.

    • Rewriting (NOT correcting mistakes/wrong details) is procrastination,

      You’re not the boss of my writing process. Or anyone else’s but your own. Kindly leave the accusations and shaming in the nearest lime pit.

    • Yes Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut and almost any other known author are a bunch of procrastinators!

      Micheal Crichton’s quote:
      “Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

      or Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

      Jk Rowling rewrote the opening chapter of Harry Potter a total of fifteen times.

      Guess all these authors are a bunch of fools, amazing they sold any books….

      • well michael chichton was one of the most controlling self centered authors I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with. I wouldnttake his politics nor his own very peevish way of being as a way to be ‘successful.’ In his case, I’d say, the story line andhis background made it, not his own version of rewriting. Although Im positive in the day, he would love to have all others bow to his opining.

        Hemingway often had drafts that were sloppy and unreadable because he was a drunk. Without his editor chopping and slicing and dicing everything for him, his’success’ might not have been. He had some stories, tis true. But execution of stories in writing is not same as ‘having stories to tell.’

        Kurt was my friend, as is Steve. In fact just reading Kurt’s “Letters’ again. I would say that they each have/had their own way, that is not the way of others. Kurt paid a huge price to write what he wrote, a price as a POW and a witness to slaughter that most writers would never ever have to climb up out of. Steve as he has made public has had his own struggles. ALL of those post truamas and more underlie any author’s works who has lived them, giving them perspectives and urgencies often that others who have had their own very different kind of life, dont have. How Steve and Kurt proceeded, is not imo, actually germaine to other writers who have not walked in their shoes, had their struggles.

        JK is a magnificent woman and her way, is not anyone else’s way. If an author wants to write as others write, pattern, process, etc. Fine. However, I encourage my learners to be as they are, each unique, and to discover their own patterns rather than think writing is in any way shape or form some kind of recipe written by someone else that others ought follow. Unless of course that’s their inborn down to the bones writing pattern.

        It takes time to discover what one is made of. I really dont care for horses ‘broken’ by someone else, farmed out, because the human companion is too lazy or ignorant to feel their way through to relationship in depth with a good horse.

        • Just saying, I believe rewriting is important. I would like to believe otherwise. but I have not found much counter proof of people capable of pulling of a nice readable first draft. Please refer me to any example you may be aware of and I will bow down in humility. (NOTE: I like a good story, but it must be told without any wasted sentences, as Kurt so often said.)


          • STef, I think, with respect, the most important is that you do for YOU, whatever works. Im not into people bowing down. What I like to see is that people strike out boldly in their own ways that bring one of a kind work forward that has a significant animating force coursing through it. IF that comes for you or/and others by having your own methods, that’s fine. However, there are many writers who do differently than what you’ve laid out. For you and others so configured or chosen, good to go. Others, maybe, and prob not.

        • Hemingway didn’t write drunk until he really started to lose control of himself toward the end of his life. He also lied to interviewers because he hated their questions. His work was mostly done by “pantsing.”

          Crichton has the problem a lot of SF authors have: really interesting concepts, but the stories themselves often fall flat.

        • USAF, I really wish we could sit down and have dinner together. Boy, the stories you could tell. I could too, but not so many would star famous writers.

          As for rewriting, I’d have to say that there’s no such thing as a first draft with me. I write, then I go back and edit what I wrote, then I write some more, and if I have to refer back to an earlier chapter, while I’m there, I’ll tweak it here and there. That process is ongoing throughout the novel. At the end of each book, I print it out and edit it by hand because I think you get a different style of editing on paper than you do on the computer.

          And then I input my changes and edit some more. Then I send it to my editor and SHE makes more suggestions and I get one more major edit (and maybe a minor one). Then the book is done. And now, when I look back at the first three books in the series, half the time I think of tweaks I’d make to the language. Had to learn the hard way to let my babies fly from the nest.

          • someday Meryl, we will break bread together. I would like that too with many people here, wouldnt that be cool.

            I differentiate between individual craft, which is what I hear you saying about your work, and what some tout as some kind of rote procedure, proclaimed to others as the right way or only way or whatever, lol way for all others to do.

            If you havent experienced it yet, you will eventually Meryl, that is some work thunders through all of one piece, beyond what one’s skills actually are, and after usually day and night and day and night with little food or rest, after the writer resembles more the wreck of the Hesperes, and when looking at the work in a day or week later, finds very little if anything to ‘fix’ or change. It is more like a transmission than what one is used to. Many many books are written just like that… almost as if being ‘possessed’ but in a good way… except for lack of sleep and nutrition, lol

            There’s also, and maybe you have had that experience also, I certainly have, where no matter what you do, no matter one’s skill, the bait used, the absurd amount of time, pulling and pulling at the line… nada. It just wont be landed and one has to cut bait and go/do other/elsewhere.

            I notice too that many writings come more or less easily and pretty well formed first time through, because, I think, the trajectory and parts have been being thought about — before writing it all out– for months, sometimes for years, before a a pen is picked up. In a way, writing and re re rewriting in one’s mind and heart before ever ‘writing it down.’ That too, I note often goes without saying/ noting when some attempt to speak with authority about ‘how writers’ write.’ Or ‘ought to.’

            Thanks Meryl for listening to an old coot carry on. Incidentally, I did your name, there’s music inside it

            • I have had that experience, I call it “Lightning from God”. Usually it’s a short story that comes out in its entirety from a thought or an image. I saw a rainbow on the way to a friend’s house and wrote a short story set in the Projects where I spent three of the worst years of my life, and made my mother cry because apparently I described the Projects vividly.

              And yeah, I have definitely experienced the story that just won’t work. Shelved writing to look back on in a decade or three.

              What fascinates me most about the writing process is how so much is in the subconscious mind. I write my chapters out of order, frequently writing the last chapters months before the bridges to them, and then the bridge just comes so easily it’s as if I plotted it (which I usually didn’t). Our brains are fantastic. I don’t believe a computer AI is ever going to equal human thought processes.

              Thanks for the compliment, USAF. Maybe one day Passive Guy will have a TPV Con. I’d come. Bet a lot of us would.

              • “What fascinates me most about the writing process is how so much is in the subconscious mind. I write my chapters out of order, frequently writing the last chapters months before the bridges to them, and then the bridge just comes so easily it’s as if I plotted it (which I usually didn’t).”

                Agreed Meryl

                I also have this other experience of suddenly everything going down too long and I suddenly realize there are two or more books trying to crowd into this one Im working on. lol. So, I remove the pages that actually belong to other books not yet written. You’re right, the mind is very very mysterious…. although if one holds that there are many universes that ‘visit’ those who are open to ‘the intelligences’ it seems nearly normal, you know?

                And I realize many persons dont see/hear/sense that way. I try to keep my elations to myself then. lol

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.