Increasingly Fine

Red Pen

My friend – maybe it’d be best to call him a “pen pal”? – Chuck Wendig had this to say in regards to the task that must follow the completion of a first draft:

Writing is rewriting. A writer’s arsenal of talents are brought to bear on the first draft, but his skills (the things he has learned) go to bat during the second.

The first draft requires a sledgehammer, the subsequent drafts require scalpels, each smaller and sharper than the last.

This is a very good point that he made, one that I hadn’t considered. When one sits down to bang out the first draft, to cross the yawning chasm of unwritten words between the first syllable of chapter one and the last predicate of the last sentence, it’s usually not done with advice from The Elements of Style clearly in mind. It’s done to get it done.

Once it’s done, it could almost be said that the real work begins. Drafting the work in the first run is less about finesse and precision and more about words just flowing from the writer’s imagination onto the page. Revision is almost a different animal entirely, yet we don’t get marketable work out of what we create without it. We have to use an increasingly fine set of tools to whittle the amorphous shape of the draft into a polished, well-shaped chronicle poised to leave the shelves of a bookseller with at least a leisurely stroll.

The first pass is done with a bit of abandon. Extraneous words are yanked out. Sentences are broken up. Dialog, scenery, even entire sequences of events are rearranged. This is the ‘chainsaw’ revision.

Following this is the ‘scissors’ stage. Dangling bits are trimmed back. The work begins to take more shape. It becomes more fashionable, but not quite exactly what we’re looking for.

Finally you reach the point of employing the ‘scalpel’. A word here, a suffix there, just little touches that make a good effort something truly special. Provided it finds its way to the right agent.

That’s how I see it, anyway, now that I’ve been set straight. Am I missing any stages? What’ve your experiences been moving from one to the next?

1 Comment

  1. Different comfort levels with editing might actually reverse this, believe it or not — every writer is different, after all. You might get to the first edit and feel a little timid, feel the waters are lukewarm and dip naught but an uncertain toe into the mix. You just edit for language, maybe — easy, you look for spelling and grammar problems and language clarity issues.

    But then the further you go, the more you become aware of deeper problems — and the greater distance you gain — and so you start employing bigger blades: fire axes, chainsaws, orbital lasers.

    Every project is different and demands its own thing, but one thing I’ve found in common is that the first draft is always a weird journey, an apocalyptic and hallucinogenic race of endurance.

    — c.

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