I spoke to a writers’ group the other day, and the most interesting question I received was about how my style/approach to writing has changed since going through the publication process with my first novel. Without hesitation, I answered that it was coming to understand that most of writing is revising. I told them that if I quantified all the hours I spent working on that book, less than a tenth would come from writing the first draft.
I used to equate “writing” with “composing a first draft.” Revising and editing were necessary evils that would be tacked onto the end of that process. But, to me, the meat of the process was just getting that story down. If I could put down a good enough story, then I could be a “writer.”
However, I now understand that that’s just the beginning. The meat of the process is revision. And I no longer view it as requisite tweaking, but rather as the actual place where I take something vaguely shaped like a story and shape it into an actual story. If you were to compare it to baking, writing the first draft is not the baking. It’s not even the mixing. Writing the first draft is like gathering the ingredients in front of you.
“That’s kind of discouraging,” one of the members of the group said. “Thinking of all that work you put into the first draft.”
But I told her that it was actually freeing. Understanding that the first draft doesn’t need to be good (or even kind of remotely good) allows me to write more and more quickly. I no longer stop and torture myself searching for the perfect line of dialogue or clever twist or inspiring description. I just write, and I tell myself, “Yeah, it’s crap, but whatever. I’ll fix it later.”
If you read a lot of writing advice, this probably isn’t new to you. But I didn’t learn this by reading a quote about it on Twitter. I learned it by doing it, by revising the hell out of a story until I sold it. So if you find yourself stuck with a manuscript nobody will buy, maybe you need to write another one. Or maybe you need to actually write that story.