During a job interview earlier this year, I told the interviewer my favorite part about the writing process is revision.
I told her that I liked it because it’s during this stage that the story comes alive. This is when the magic happens, when the writing shines.
I told her I liked the revision stage the best, but I lied.
The reasons are true – the revision stages are the most necessary parts of the writing process. Rarely is the first draft ever just right to our liking. It’s during revision that we get it there.
But I don’t like it – I only wish I did.
Revisions are hard and time-consuming. They take a lot of energy, and most of the time, I’m not actually writing and creating. I’m only reading through the same scene, story, or chunk over and over again to make sure the setting, character names, and actions are all consistent. To make sure they’re fleshed out and that the pacing is appropriate and effective.
Revisions are overwhelming for these reasons and more. How do I decide what paragraphs to cut? What scenes might not be necessary – even though I LOVE them all? And the most terrifying of all for me is wondering, am I making the story worse with my revisions?
Of course, during the writing process, I have people take a look at chapters and give me feedback, but what I need is someone to stand over my shoulder and watch me cut and add and tweak so that I can ask them what they think as I go.
I need someone who has nothing else better to do than hole up in my office with me for hours at a time to bounce ideas off of – but of course this is unrealistic.
And just as unrealistic is having a formula for revisions.
If only there was a formula to follow to go about revisions the right way. But just as there’s no one right path for us to take in life, there’s no one right way to revise. It all depends on the story, the characters, the writer’s style, and so forth.
Writing isn’t like math where you have an equation to solve. Where there’s a right answer based on addition, subtraction, etc. You might take different approaches to solve an equation, but there’s one answer. There’s one correct answer.
It doesn’t work that way with writing – writing is subjective.
Before I started writing, I was good at math and science. I was pre-med in college, and I thrived on finding the correct solutions to problems. And if I did get a problem wrong, I knew why. I could see why and use the correct technique next time.
Not with writing. No, when I first started writing, I was terrified of revision. I started putting it off – until I had a large pile of unfinished short stories and essays accumulating on my desk and in bins – they started crowding my folders on my laptop.
If I put it off, I could just say they aren’t finished and I’ll get to them later. But it’d be months before I did. If I ever did. The story I mentioned from my first ever workshop that I revised? Yes I did revise it, and it did get published….But it took me a year to do it. It was one of the many stories I put off.
So yes, it’s great to get feedback from others, but there are still many decisions to make. And what if your critique partners disagree? What then? This is what happened with my story I mentioned – my classmates disagreed with each other on the feedback. My professor’s suggestions were different from all of theirs too.
While I needed that feedback to guide me forward, it was still difficult to make the “right” call, to change the ending or not, to add to the backstory or not.
I want to like revisions. For the same reasons I told the interviewer and all the reasons I preached to my composition students when I was a TA. Writing is a process. Revision is a big part of this process and necessary to make the story shine.
My short story needed revisions, no matter what direction I decided to go in. But I was scared.
I was scared because there’s no formula – there’s no right answer like I was accustomed to all my life before writing. It was a big change for me when I started grad school, something I had a hard time grappling with.
Because with a first draft, you just write. You write and write and write just to get the story out without worrying about if it’s well written or if you’ve developed the character enough. You get a free pass with a first draft because there’s a general understanding that it’s supposed to be a mess.
That’s what revisions are for – to clean it up. To make it sound good. To develop the characters.
This is also the reason my attitude toward revision is changing. Slowly, the more experience I gain with it, I’ve started enjoying it a little more. Because at the end of the day, no matter how much feedback I receive, I get to decide what I keep and take out. I decide where the story goes and what happens to the characters. It’s mine to create, mold, and sculpt. It’s my voice and style on the paper.
No one can tell my story like I can, just like I can’t tell someone else’s.
So I’ll go forth with my revisions and make the story my own. There’s no one formula for it or answer, but when I get to the finish line, when I write The End on a story, I revel in the fact that it’s my own.
I don’t get to that finishing point with a formula, but rather, by using my own judgment. There’s something pretty empowering about that – about trusting myself enough to make hard choices that make my story better. In the process, I better myself as a person, because learning to trust myself is hard. To trust my instincts when other people might disagree? It’s really hard.
It’s hard to block out the voices and listen to your heart. Sometimes you’ll agree with the majority, but trust yourself enough to know what’s best for you, even if it’s not consistent with everyone else. The results are tremendously rewarding – that powerful feeling of accepting how you feel and what you think is best is unparalleled.
Trust yourself and embrace the rewards.