How I Came to Love Revising and Editing
Ah, revision. That part of writing that comes after the joy of knocking out a first draft. The part that a lot of writers seem to dread most - and understandably so. Compared to revising, first drafts are relatively easy. You have to force yourself to get through them sometimes, but as long as you're putting words on the page, you're doing your job. Revising is a little more challenging. You have to go back in and tear apart all your hard work, then build something better from whatever's left. The following quote comes to mind:
"Editing is just like writing, only hateful, and in reverse."
For a long time, I completely shared that sentiment. Some days, I still do. For the most part, though, I've come to enjoy revising and editing a lot more than writing first drafts. I think part of that comes from the way my perspective on writing has shifted over the past five years or so. I've also come to recognize my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and first drafts are definitely not one of my strengths. Some people can knock out an awesome first draft, do a couple rounds of line edits, and end up with a masterpiece. I'm not one of those people, so it became a necessity to start enjoying the revision process because I was spending the vast majority of my time there. Still, that mindset didn't develop overnight.
This is something I've been thinking a lot about lately as I've been putting the final touches on Secrets of PEACE, so I'll use it as an example throughout this post because it's probably the one story that's taught me the most about the revision process.
I wrote the first real draft of Secrets of PEACE in about six weeks. I'd started before that, but had to scrap it halfway through because I realized I'd started the story way too early, then scrapped it again because I decided to give a then-minor character a much larger role and that meant redoing everything. So really, that first completed draft was more like Draft 1.3. I was pregnant with my oldest daughter and knew I wouldn't have much time for writing with a newborn, so I just wanted to get it done. I was still writing by hand in a notebook at that point, so after life with the new baby had settled down a little, I started typing the story up, making some major revisions as I went along. Then I took a big step back, patted myself on the back, and figured I was basically done with the thing. Sure, I might need to do some minor edits, but I'd worked out all the major issues. It wasn't just a good story - it was a great story. Right?
No. No, it was not. I started participating in an online writing group around this time and, with the help of other people in the group, I realized that the story had some serious issues. I rewrote it again - and when I say rewrote it, I really do mean I rewrote it. It wasn't just about revising certain parts that weren't working well or rearranging scenes or fixing awkward wording. I started over, working from the previous draft, but still drastically changing probably 50% or more of the material. I also started exchanging feedback with another writer on a chapter by chapter basis, which was immensely helpful. She brought up a few points in the story that I knew I'd have to go back in and fix (again), but they were good suggestions that didn't require any major overhauls, so I figured I had it nailed this time.
It was around then that I started to really hate the whole revising thing, so I started working on the sequel to Secrets of PEACE. It was fun to be writing completely new material again, but I was filled with dread at the prospect of having to rewrite this story as much as the first one. I started to feel like I wasn't getting anywhere. I had always kind of assumed that writing the first draft was 75% of the work, and after that, it was just about polishing things up a little. Now, it was starting to look like it might be the other way around, and I just wasn't sure if I wanted to do that. Revising was a chore. Revising really did feel like something hateful, something where I took three steps forward and two steps back. Unfortunately, it didn't get any better anytime soon.
In late 2014, I did another round of revisions on Secrets of PEACE, and in early 2015, I sent the manuscript out to a few different beta readers for feedback. At that point, the plan was to get the story ready to submit to agents and publishers. I really thought I was close, so when the beta readers came back with much harsher critique than I expected, I was a little frustrated. Okay, maybe frustrated is an understatement. I was devastated. I felt like a complete failure. I'd already poured four years of my life into this thing, and people were still saying that the most basic aspects of the story needed work. Setting, character relationships and motivation, pacing, parts of the plot - all of that stuff needed to be reworked. Again.
I had to put the story away after that. I knew I needed to take a big step back and reevaluate everything, but I was still too emotionally invested in that flawed draft to do so with any semblance of logical reasoning. It sat untouched on my computer for nine months. I tried to forget about it. I wrote some short stories. I started working on an entirely different story in a completely different genre. While writing all of these other stories, I kept looking forward to the revision process more than I did the actual writing. The writing part was harder for me - coming up with all that new material and knowing it was going to need a ton of work to even be readable. I just wanted to get to that part - the part where I could fix the story, where I could really say what I was trying to say and bring the characters to life. The part where I could turn the story into something I was proud of. And I did, several times. Those short stories were immensely helpful in building my confidence and making me a better writer.
With that in mind, I started to think about Secrets of PEACE again. And then one day in February, I decided I'd finish the damn thing and do it right this time if it killed me. I went back and looked at the beta reader feedback that had devastated me before, and I realized that a lot of what they'd said were things I had already doubted about the story before I even sent it out. The setting did need work. The character motivations did need to be clearer. Certain plot elements did feel incredibly contrived. Even though I had already questioned some of those things about the story before, I hadn't known how to fix them at the time. Now, I had some ideas.
I rewrote the draft again. I changed probably half of the plot and made major changes to some of the other story elements as well. I got rid of the contrivances, and in doing that, I got rid of my doubts. It took 20 days of completely undivided attention. I definitely neglected my school work. I may have neglected my family a little more than I should have, too, but I had to get it done. It had been eating me up for nine months already and I had to fix it. I had to be proud of it again. And by the time I finished, I was. But the whole process wasn't over yet. I sent it out to beta readers again. They all offered some very valuable suggestions for improvement, but overall, the feedback was overwhelmingly more positive than before. It's been a couple months, and I still don't have the doubts I did before about where the story is headed. I'm still proud of it, and I'm excited to finally share it with everyone.
Here's what I've learned through all of this. First of all, revision is hard. You're not alone in that. My guess is that it's hard for everyone in one way or another no matter how long you've been writing. That will never change. But it's necessary. If you want to make your story the best it can possibly be, you're probably going to need to spend a good chunk of time doing revisions. I wouldn't advise anyone to spend five years on one story like I did with Secrets of PEACE, but if that's what it takes, then that's what it takes. So sit down, buckle up, and be prepared for the long haul. Secondly, every minute you spend revising or editing your work is completely worth it. You have no idea how happy I am now that I didn't try to publish the earlier version of Secrets of PEACE. It was a long journey for me and there were definitely some tears shed (more than I care to admit), but it was so very worthwhile. You don't want to put something out there that you aren't proud of or that you haven't taken the necessary time to clean up. And finally, if you learn to appreciate rewriting, revising, and editing for all the fantastic things they do for your manuscript and for the things you'll learn along the way, it makes the whole process a lot more enjoyable. Instead of dreading it, just embrace it.