Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake


A couple of folks have recently asked me to talk a bit about revision. I'll take a crack at it now. First of all, a disclaimer. My own relationship with revision and revision processes is ambiguous at best. Take everything I say here with a massive grain of salt, more so than the usual spoonful you should administer prophylactically while reading my thoughts on writing.

Me and revision

I am blessed with the ability to write strong, clean first drafts. (Some might argue I suffer from this.) 47 of the 216 short stories I've had accepted in past seven years were first draft plus one line edit pass. A few of them were straight first drafts.

This leads to a couple of tendencies on my part, and the sort of craft issues that jetse was recently taking me to task over. One is sheer laziness. If I can write a good story in essentially one pass, why wouldn't it? I enjoy drafting far, far more than I enjoy revision. And believe me, I enjoy revision a lot more today than I did in the past. I used to loathe doing revision, now I merely find it somewhat tedious.

The other is a tendency to view the revisions I do put into place with a certain amount of suspicion. I'm never quite sure of the work I do there can measure up to the cool factor of the first draft. Also, I have a dread fear of MFA-style story polishing.

This is not a behavior of mine which I encourage others to emulate.

Other people and revision

Some writers, devonmonk and Ray Vukcevich for example, don't even think about revision. To them, it's just more writing. Work on the story, work on the story some more. I admire that perspective, and have attempted to adopt it for myself, to some degree of success. They produce tighter, cleaner, crisper work than I. (This is the sort of process jetse was urging me toward.)

Others follow the traditional "four Ds" -- draft it, drawer it, drag it back out, and do it over. This is probably the most usual model. To me it's also the most artificial, but that's an utterly personal reaction.

You and revision

What does that mean for any individual writer? I don't have a lot of wisdom here, just some scattered thoughts.

The first of those is that no one is a good judge of their own work. You develop objectivity with experience, but it's never complete. That's one reason Clarion/Milford style workshops can be so incredibly useful to early-career and pre-published writers. So knowing what to revise, and how, is very much a process of external education for most people.

A closely related idea is that we have two core skill sets as authors. One is writing, the other is editing. For most people, the writing skill set drives the drafting process, while the editing skill set drives the revision process. In my opinion, it is the writing/drafting work that sets each of us apart, gives us our individual voices, and makes every writer distinctive. It's a lot easier to get help on editing than it is to get help on writing. Forced to choose, I'll take improving my drafts over improving my revisions every time. I'm not sure I'm correct about this, but it's been the basis of my career so far. It's certainly quite possible to develop one of those skill sets to a highly accomplished degree while the other remains nearly dormant. Of late, I'm trying to improve my revision processes, not because I have an emotional desire to do so, but so as to avoid having too asymmetrical a toolbox for myself.

On the other side of that logic is the "don't screw it up" school of thought. I happen to be a primary proponent of this one. In the past I've been criticized both here and in conversation for pushing the "write fast" rubric. People tell me I risk breaking other writers' processes by urging them beyond their skill and comfort level. Maybe that's true, I don't know, but it seems to me we grow only by pushing the boundaries of skill, and great fiction can come from pushing the boundaries of comfort. In any case, fast writing seems to tap the vein of auctorial voice at least as effectively as any other technique, and more effectively than most.

Voice sells, people.

So when I approach revision, I very much have a "don't screw it up" mentality. That makes me very conservative beyond the level of line edits and fixes to infelicitious language. My own assessment of my career is that I've succeeded due to having a voice which readers (and editors) find distinctive and engaging.

All of which biases me against something which is probably essential for the vast majority of writers.

To sum up, while I can talk endlessly about drafting stories, critiquing them, marketing them, publishing them, and so forth, I have no idea about how to counsel other people to approach revision. My own process is pretzel-logic as it is. Times like this, I wish I was smarter.

Here's the sum total of my formal advice on this topic: "Write more."

But then that's the sum total of my formal advice on most writing topics.
Tags: process, writing
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