The Difficult Truth of Revision

I recently had the privilege to attend a small Q&A session with poet Claudia Rankine. She said (and I paraphrase from memory), “A first draft is like going to the store to buy some clay. Now you have something tangible to work with, and you can begin the real work of sculpting it.” 

This is the best way I’ve heard so far of explaining my current attitude toward revision. It goes completely contrary to the way I wrote some years ago. Back then I didn’t bother writing anything down until I had it worked out perfectly. A “first draft” was the typed result of long and laborious thinking until I’d freed a story in my mind from any holes. A “second draft” entailed simple edits to make sure I’d accurately conveyed everything. I worked mostly line by line, changing a sentence or two here or there. To look at the entire piece as an unrefined, shapeless lump would undermine all of the work I had done. What would have been the point of writing the story to begin with if it was going to morph into something completely different? 

There could be a lot of point, it turned out. Say there’s only one good scene in a first draft. This is exactly what happens to me most of the time. I can call it a mediocre story and move on, or I can throw out everything except the good scene. I’ll keep maybe one page (or one paragraph) out of seventeen pages, and ask myself what it is that makes this one section right. Using whatever answer I have, I write my second draft, where I’ll have maybe two good scenes. Again, I throw away the rest like so much excess clay. If I keep drafting, eventually the story starts to take shape, and things I hadn’t seen before begin to surface. Stephen King refers to stories as “fossils that we unearth,” and this metaphor works especially well if we imagine our early drafts as being the dirt in which we dig. 

To tell the good scenes from the bad ones, I usually let the story sit, and try to push it from my immediate memory. This helps give me a reader’s perspective, where I’m less invested and so can more easily recognize what’s well-sculpted and what’s still a raw slab. The trick is being able to believe every draft is “the right one” while I’m making it, but then being willing to go back later and say, “This isn’t it. But this paragraph here is right, and now I’m one paragraph closer.” 

It may sound depressing to write ten times as much as I save, but I certainly don’t write well one hundred percent of the time. Ten percent sounds about right, and I’m happy if nobody sees the majority that’s tossed. Really good first drafts are miracles. If I eventually get a story that’s good for the whole way through, it’s worth as many versions as it takes to get it there.