In my 19 years as a journalist and editor, editing was always open document, save as version 2 (or 3 or whatever, we actually used our initials) then clean it up. Don’t waste what you’ve already got. Build up the weak spots, move sections around, polish up the sentences and viola! The final piece. We always worked off that first draft.
So I was surprised — shocked was more like it — when author and former editor Lisa Graff said at the 2010 Austin SCBWI conference that once she’d finished her draft, she’d scrap it and start again. Scrap it? Start with a new blank document? No “save as”?
Last week, Cynthia Leitich Smith described the same revision strategy:
“writing the entire story with a beginning, middle, and end, and then printing it, reading it, tossing it and deleting the file.”
But Cynthia explained what seemed like madness to me in such a useful way:
“It’s a comforting strategy, one that takes a lot of pressure off (nobody but me was going to read it anyway) and offers the opportunity to get to know the characters and their world. You don’t commit to a working manuscript based on that first effort. (It would be a very shaky foundation.) Instead, you start over fresh, armed with lessons learned from the intensive pre-writing.”
Wise words indeed.
Personally, I don’t know if I could just scrap an entire draft — especially not delete it!
But in the last two revisions I’ve done, I can see that there’s something to this start-again strategy. As I edited my last novel, I began by reworking scenes sentence by sentence, but I started to get frustrated. The story wanted to move ahead, but my brain was saying, ‘hold on, we just have to figure out how to get this older sentence in there.’ Finally, I cut the older version and pasted it into a different file and rewrote the scene with the new focus I had in mind, with the plan that later I’d go through the “cut” file and see if there were any parts I particularly wanted to keep.
Not only did my writing go faster, but the scenes came out better than the earlier versions, with more depth and plenty of new parts that surprised me. When I was done, I started to look through the cut segments, but quickly realized I didn’t need to. If there was some excellent sentence in there, it no longer fit, and it was no longer needed.
Fear had kept me from trying this before. Fear of not being able to reproduce something that I thought was good. I figured, if I could keep what was good, I could make it better by just building up the weak spots, moving sections around and polishing up the sentences. Stick with the foundation and carve from there.
While that’s a perfectly good revision strategy, I learned that starting again from scratch gave me the freedom to explore my story and characters just like I would within a first draft but with all the knowledge I had gained during my earlier versions.
For chapters that needed minor work, I stuck to my old routine. But when I had an idea that would dramatically change a scene, I started it as if it was new.
So I understand what Lisa and Cynthia meant now, and while I still wouldn’t hit that delete button on a first draft, I do love being able to start over.
What are your strategies for revision?
Fear is always standing in the way protecting us from risky things. The fact we overcome it and do what we want enlarges the frames of what we are able to. And this is awesome and totally worth risking.