Revisions as Stalling
Once we get over the panic of the blank page or screen and actually squeeze out a few sentences, in our elation we may yield to the temptation to go back and revise. We baby those hard-won sentences into perfection and then sit back and bask in our satisfaction.
But what do we have? Admittedly, a start, but actually just a few sentences. What happened to the excitement that engendered the piece? It’s gone, like steam out the open window. We sit there, staring, or even sigh and get up and walk away to do something that betrays our writing time. We know we should have gone forward with the fearsome task of traversing the blankness, but we stall. And if we stay at the desk, instead we revise.
I’m not against revision – far from it. All the articles and suggestions and tips on revising have their place. They wisely advise us to attend to the housekeeping: checks of spelling, grammar, formats. They sensitively counsel us to focus on the craft – conciseness, active voice, repetition, runaway adverbs, overwriting, underwriting. All of these matter.
But not yet. In our first draft, we don’t want to squander the energy that will get the damn thing down and instead preen in the premature false accomplishment of revision. After finally pecking out a phrase or sentence, the pull to go back and polish is almost irresistible. But I’ve found that pull impedes the flow, dampens the first excitement, and siphons off the enthusiasm, all to cushion the terror of the blankness.
That terror, which we all face at one time or another, demands we choose among the endless and overwhelming possibilities of what to get down on the blank page. Will it be right? Clear? Keen, astute, subtle, sage? In the end, good enough? But ignoring such terrible questions and plunging ahead leads to what we really want – the fulfillment and joy of writing.
Instead of facing the terror and its questions, we set up the lure of revising like a roadblock. But ironically, when we yield to the roadblock, it stalls our passion and veers the work into blandness.
Instead of revising during that all-important first foray, I suggest a method that helps us persist and resist the untimely, seductive call of revision. You may think it’s obvious, but it works.
Instead of stopping everything to revise, I write myself notes, smack in the manuscript. In all caps, my notes trumpet what could be self-castigation but really isn’t. I think of them as assuaging my inner writing tyrant, telling her, Okay, I know, I know, this is awful, and I’m going to go back later.
So I type, in all caps, admonitions as FIX, BAD, WRONGGGG WORD. The notes help me to keep going with that agonizing first draft, no matter how many times it’s peppered with “FIX” and “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING!”
The Right Time
I plow on, and the teeth-gritted draft, finally, is done. I take a deep breath, wipe my brow, and sigh. Then get up and leave it. Go out and do something else. I stop thinking about the draft, how awful it is, how it confirms my lack of talent as a writer, how I’ll never get anywhere.
Days later, I sneak back up on the piece. To my shock, I think, “Hey, not so bad! Sure, rough spots (remember the all-cap notes), but, I exclaim with incredulity, “I can work with this!”
And . . . line by line, brownie by brownie, beer by beer, I start to edit and revise. Now I no longer feel I should be doing new writing, although some will inevitably take place. I don’t feel like I’ve avoided the original work. I’ve managed to retain and infuse the piece with at least some of my original fervor.
Now I think of revision another way. I’ve produced a rough diamond, not marketable in its raw state. It needs honing, sharpening, and close attention to bring out its many dazzling facets. They’re in there, and they need the patient verbal burnishing that only I, the author, can give.
If revising too soon thwarts your zeal, revision later becomes an appropriate loving sculpting of your work to its finest. Keep this perspective in mind. As I have discovered, it will help you write what you must, get it all down, retain the juice, and stop using revision to stall your writing.
Author, editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and academic mentor, Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. (Columbia University) has published over 600 articles, stories, and poems in writing, literary, spiritual, and academic print and online venues. Her children’s book of original dinosaur riddles, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks, was featured on PBS’s Reading Rainbow, and her articles on the book appear in several writers’ and children’s magazines. Based on her academic coaching and editing practice, Noelle’s handbook for graduate students helps them overcome largely ignored nonacademic difficulties: Challenge in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In her spiritual self-help book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she helps readers release regrets and reach their lifelong yearnings. As part of pursuing her writing Dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach their own and create the lives they truly desire. Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she has completed her first novel and, with trepidation, embarked on her second. Website: www.trustyourlifenow.com