If First Drafts Are Shit, Why Do Writers Hate to Revise?

Shitty First Draft

                                                                  Shitty First Draft?

So Much Poopy

“The first draft of anything is shit.” Attributed to Ernest Hemingway, these words have inspired admiring riffs by other writers. Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, wrote, “The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” Caleb Ross, author of Stranger Will, advised writers to “write your novel when you feel like shit; edit when you feel great.”

It Wasn’t Always So

So if your first draft is shitty, you must write a second. This idea is largely a construct of the modern era, something I didn’t know until reading “Revising Your Writing Again? Blame the Modernists,” by Craig Fehrman. My university students must have been throwbacks then, as they did everything but pay me to avoid revising.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. I loved my students, and they cranked out some wonderful writing. A few even published some creative nonfiction and poetry they wrote for class. Because I required it, they all revised. Some even said my personalized, detailed, multi-draft editing and revision process was what helped their writing improve the most—and they thanked me for it.

But they did it because I made them. And because I gave them copious feedback on each draft to guide those changes. Do they continue to do the much harder work of self-revision and editing now that they have no personal editor wielding a grade on the end of a whip? I don’t know. Perhaps the best writers do; I doubt the others take the time.

Why Do We Hate to Revise?

In her blog, Explorations of Style, Rachael Cayley, senior lecturer at the University of Toronto, posited a different reason writers avoid revision. “Many writers believe their own first drafts to be uniquely flawed; in other words, they think the weakness of the first draft comes from their lack of writing skill rather than from the intrinsic weakness of any first draft,” she wrote.

It makes sense—if someone thinks your writing stinks, it’s embarrassing to admit you slaved over ten drafts to produce such odoriferous prose. Much better to have the cop-out, “It was only a first draft,” to explain such crap.

But if writers 1) accepted that everyone writes shitty first drafts and 2) learned to revise effectively so their subsequent drafts actually were better, imagine how much nicer the world would smell!

I always blamed laziness or being overburdened for students’ resistance to revision. However, it could be that they just didn’t know how to fix their writing errors. As one of my students said to me early in the semester, an exasperated look on her face, “If I had known how to do it correctly in the first place, I would have done it then!”

X Marks the Spot

A perfectly good point! However, you don’t have to be a know-it-all going in. Think of revision as a big treasure hunt. First you unearth each issue that needs attention; then you match each with the technique needed to fix it. Apply the methods you’ve already mastered, perfect those you’re iffy on, and find instructions for implementing the rest.

For example, if you have trouble keeping your verb tenses consistent in your memoir, revision is the perfect time to practice that. If you have no idea what metaphors are, but need them for your poem, the revision process should show you that you need to do some research and learn.

Revision Courses

Gaining revision skills helps you build confidence in your writing overall. My students were fortunate to have direct instruction about methods and the order in which to perform operations. If you are not enrolled in a course, free or low-cost instruction options abound online through Udemy (they run $10 and $29 sales), Gotham Writers, Poynter Institute (their course is free!), Holly Lisle, Writer’s Digest University, and Lynda.com. A cursory search of MOOCs didn’t turn up any revision and editing courses, but check back periodically. There are also many university writing centers, blogs, and websites that offer tips and tutorials about various aspects of writing, grammar, and punctuation that may arise during the revision process. I offer a course periodically through my website, CreativePowerWriting.com. Email me if you are interested and I’ll expedite a session.

Do you hate to revise? If so, why? What would make the process more palatable for you? Or do you eschew revision entirely, preferring to let ideas flow out in one unedited take?

Next time: An overview of the revision process and its three parts.

What do you think?

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