If you were in a nice restaurant and were served a too-salty soup, would you recommend the soup — or the restaurant — to anyone? It’s the same with writing. If you want people to read what you write and come back for more, you have to do what’s needed to make it really good.
It all starts with the first draft. A first draft gives you something to work with so you can get to where you want to go. It’s a necessary step, and hardly the last one. I hear too often from people that they’re finished with a piece because they’ve written it from beginning to end. A quick read often shows me it’s finished because they feel finished with it. It’s still a first draft — undeveloped, incomplete.
A first draft is not ready for line editing, it’s ready for development. It’s not ready to refine, it’s ready to rewrite.
What surprise! Some people think this means their writing isn’t as good as it should be, but that isn’t necessarily true. The only fault here is in skipping the rewrite. Rewriting is a part of writing.
All successful writers revise until they’re truly done. They know rewriting comes with the territory and they plan on it. They’re developing as they go through subsequent drafts, improving the writing every time. Award-winning novelist Joyce Carol Oates says most of her time writing is really rewriting. Bestselling author and award-winning screenwriter John Irving says, “More than half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting.” Stephen King writes a complete draft of a book, then “shelves” it for a week before pulling it out and sitting down with it and a red pen to read through, mark fixes and note new ideas. He rewrites and then shows it to his reader for feedback before finalizing and sending it on to his agent. (His editor is with his publishing company, and all of it is handled through his agent.) It’s a winning method for him.
I love writing first drafts. Besides enjoying the feeling of freedom in this first step of writing a piece, I know I need those freely written words for material to develop. I love turning off my internal editor and turning on the faucet to let the thoughts and ideas flow onto the page. My internal editor has a pretty loud voice after thirty years in the business, and I like giving her a break. I take chances, use words as they come to me, trusting they’re the right words and knowing that if I decide later they aren’t, I’ll change them. If I re-read and fiddle and fix while I’m creating, I’ll interrupt the stream of possibility.
There are a few good words for development of a first draft. One is “rewriting.” Another is “revision.” “Revision” is my favorite. It excites me. Translated literally, it means to see again. And that’s the attitude I take when I return to a piece after the first draft — I am seeing with new eyes.
Try these five tips for the first revision when you have a piece of writing fresh out of the gate:
Rest. Let the story “rest” for a few days or even a week so your view of it is fresh. You see more this way and can refine better.
Review. Read your story all the way through without making changes. Notice what’s there and be open to ideas. Look at the beginning. Does it grab you? If it doesn’t grab you, it won’t grab a reader. Consider shape. How close to the main event does the story start? Does the story build or lie flat? Is the storyline jagged or smooth? Did you mention and/or describe place (location) and people? Does time move in a way that will be clear to a reader? Have you included any reflections on your subject? Does it fit to add how the experience affected you or anyone else? How does the story end — abruptly? With a predictable (flat) recap? Jot down some notes about what you’ve read and what you want to add.
Rewrite. Have at it! Make sure the beginning is strong and engaging. Choose the precise words to communicate your meaning. Take out what isn’t needed for the strength of the story (even if you love how you wrote it!); add and keep only what’s needed to for a clear sense of situation and story.
Prune. Read what you’ve written, this time making your add-ins and take-aways while you read. Sometimes what you wrote inspires a better way of saying it.
Polish. Now that you have the content as you like it, you can hear the rhythm of the writing. You may be satisfied with it; you may find room for improvements. You may see, for example, that one sentence has a better rhythm made into two.
When you’ve done all you can do, you are truly finished. It’s time to send it to a good editor for a quality line edit before publication.