Revision Hurdles

I have a confession to make: I have drafted (at least) five novels, and I’ve yet to revise a single one. Novellas? Sure! Short stories? No problem! But for some reason, I can’t make myself do any structural revisions on something longer than maybe 45k words.

I always understood that I would have to revise a novel … eventually. The number of hurdles I’d have to overcome to get to that point made it feel like the most distant possibility. First, I’d have to have an idea that was worth writing. I’d have to research and plot and plan, look at the idea from all directions without falling out of love with it. Then I’d have to draft it, which is tricky. I work best in a format like NaNoWriMo, dashing out a draft in a month. As a student, I rarely find four consecutive weeks without major exams or projects. If I take breaks from drafting, such as spending a few days studying instead of writing, I tend to second guess myself and overthink, which pulls the joy out of the project. This can be enough to stop me altogether.

Assuming I made it past all of those barriers and actually put the idea to paper, there was one more thing stopping me from revising: I’d have to feel proud enough of what I’d made to want to return to it. I’d have to balance my disdain and my hope — to know that the first draft was terrible, but to also know that I could make it better, and that the work I’d put into making it better would be worthwhile.

Last summer, the variables lined up perfectly. I fell in love with an idea, and that love survived my pre-writing process. I wrote 62000 words in 40 days, the perfect pace to keep me from losing momentum. I reopened that Scrivener file for the first time in December, and I knew that the draft, while awful, would be worth fixing.

Fixing this abysmal first draft feels like an impossible challenge, but I’m hopeful! Doing something for the first time means finding a routine and rhythm. I know how I outline. I know how I draft. Revising is something that I’m figuring out as I go. Maybe I’ll work best in sprints, or in long slow stretches. Maybe I’ll go through the draft chronologically, or maybe I’ll skip around and work on my favorite scenes first. Maybe my word count will swell, or maybe it’ll shrink. I am the only person who can seek those answers. My true goal is to learn how I revise; a new and improved draft will be the result of that knowledge. This is a process of discovery, and it’s been marvelously fun so far.

Writers, what strategies do you use to revise?

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