First Drafts vs. Revisions

In my head, writing tends to be divided into two main parts; the first draft, and the revisions. To me, these two sides are distinctly different stages of the same process. I randomly found myself thinking about this the other day, and found I could not say which one I preferred.

To be honest, I’ve never really thought about it outside of my actual writing time. The only times I really think about them are when I’m having difficulty with one of them. If I find that I’m really having to fight to produce a good first draft, battling just to get something, anything, onto the page, I think fondly of the point where I’ll have the bare bones already and will be able to enjoy fleshing them out. Then when I’ve been revising a piece for a few weeks, going over the same pages over and over again and unable to get them quite right, then I’ll look back with longing to drafting something new and fresh.

The first draft represents to me a freedom that you do not have later one. You have an idea and you are simply running with it, filling it in and letting your mind take each step as it comes. As I’ve moved towards more of a Discovery writing style, rather than Planned, I’ve found this even more emphasized. There is just something magical about that first filling of the blank page. You’re not worrying about typos or spelling mistakes or how it reads. You are creating something new and fresh. It is flowing from you fingers onto the page. This is the very basic nature of writing, before all the hard work has to go into it.

It’s not necessarily easy. Some of the short stories I’ve been working on recently have just not wanted to come out. I’ve had the idea, theme, and the direction I wanted to go, but the words just wouldn’t flow. It’s like chiseling marble with blunt tools. This is when I start to wish I was already revising. Sometimes it can be such hard work you start to wonder if it’s even worth carrying on. The words just won’t flow. You have the idea but getting out something readable becomes a herculean task.

This is when you dream of moving onto doing revisions. When you are revising, all the basics are there already. You have the story in front of you. You don’t have to worry about creating anything completely fresh, you can start to focus on taking the outline you’ve created and making it as good as it can be; playing with words and structure, adding and subtracting from that first draft to create something unique. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious writing student, this is the craft of writing. This is the point where you can make something that is truly your own.

And this is great. Until you have read and reread the same passage over and over again until the words have no meaning anymore. Until you’ve rewritten a paragraph three, four or five times and still it is not good enough. As writers we know that we have to make our writing as good as it can be before we publish and that this is something that takes a lot of work, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. Like any job, it can be repetitive and frustrating. You want to be working on something new and exciting, but you need to hold onto the discipline of completing something before moving on to something new.

The original thought that inspired this post was simply which side of the this process I preferred, but I don’t really think you can prefer one or the other. They are both simply part of the process. The difference between a good writer and casual writer is the discipline to stick to what you are doing, seeing it through to the best of your ability. It is human nature to look forward or back to something else when one job gets difficult. We just have to plough through.

Writing short stories has helped me with this. Moving between pieces quickly means that I swap between first drafts and revisions relatively fast, and so I feel the urge to move on less. When I was working on a full novel the revision process took so much longer that there were point that I was just frustrated. If I ever get to that point again I could take a short break and put out some short fiction as a creative break stop. Unfortunately that idea is the first step towards the dangerous path of never finishing something.

Sometimes you just need to force yourself through. Nothing worth doing will be easy, and quite frankly a bad day’s writing is still better than a good day spent doing something else.

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