With the revision deadline for my young adult novel in the not-so-distant future, I spent last week wresting with a chapter of my book that needed major restructuring. In the midst of already having my work cut out for me, I found myself fed-up with my ‘First Draft Self’ because she had made some choices that were making the revision process go even slower. Frustrated as I was, I realized I had an opportunity to learn more about the writing process by taking some time to catalog what my First Draft Self could have done to make the revision process go smoother.
On this rare day where I find myself ahead of my revision schedule, I’ve decided to take some time to share this advice with you. If you are currently writing a first draft, whether it’s a novel, memoir, play, or other genre, consider the tips below. Your Revision Self may very well thank you for it!
- Slow and Steady. First Draft Self, there’s no question that your ultimate goal is shaping the story from start to finish, and that persevering to ‘The End’ is your biggest challenge. But remember, the discoveries you make along the way will help your Revision Self, too. So while the end is certainly a finish line, please don’t see writing the first draft as a race. Take your time. Think things through. Give yourself the space you need to wrestle between choices and to consider ideas large and small. The time to figure it out is now. The more you do, the more time your Revision Self can spend on making what you figured out stronger.
- So Lavish In Decision Making. First Draft Self, it might seem so easy to leave a fill in the blank for the name of a building or any other detail, but take it from your Revision Self, it’s not. When your Revision Self encounters that blank, she’ll already be focused on so many other things: the pace of the plot, the flow of the narrative, sentence structures, word choices, changes in setting or story, need I go on? The point is, your Revision Self won’t want to stop her major construction to figure out a fill in the blank, but she’ll have to because you made it her job. So do your Revision Self a favor by avoiding placeholder decisions. It will slow you down, sure, but is that such a bad thing? Use any decision you’re not sure about as an excuse to take a Writer’s Retreat, or to take a Thinking Bath, or to even poll your friends and followers if you’re torn between a couple of choices. In short, use it as an excuse to enjoy the juicy challenges of the creative process instead of using it as an excuse to procrastinate.
- And Don’t Let Telling Slip By. First Draft Self, I know there’s a lot you’re figuring out as you’re going along, because that’s a big part of the first draft process. Remember to take notice, however, when you find yourself writing paragraphs of narrative without any action. You might catch yourself writing at length about how your character feels about themselves or someone else, about a situation that already happened, about a tough decision they have to make, or about their greater motives. Chances are it’s because you needed to fall back on telling for a little while in order to figure these things out for yourself. Once you’ve gotten it all out, don’t keep going. Instead, read those paragraphs and ask yourself where the active scene is hiding in all of that narrative. It’s in there, somewhere. Find it and write that scene now, instead of leaving the task for your Revision Self later. Then, file those narrative notes away wherever you keep character, setting, or backstory notes so that you have them to refer back to if you need them. Your Revision Self will thank you for both of those things later on.
- Commit to a Narrative Voice, Tone, and Style. First Draft Self, I know that making this commitment can be a hard when you’re still trying to figure out other important things like who your characters are and what conflicts they face. Hard as it may be, take it from your Revision Self that making these commitments in the first draft is necessary. Changing choices of any of these three elements within a first draft – like the difference between third person limited versus third person omniscient – will guarantee that your Revision Self will have to rewrite large portions of the draft in order to achieve continuity. So if you’re not sure what narrative voice or style is the best for your story, experiment with the first few pages. Write it twice, in each of the narrative voices or styles that you are considering. Then, read it out loud to yourself, and also share it with a few trusted friends for feedback. If you’re still not sure after doing that, keep experimenting, but don’t go too deep into the draft without making your choice.
- And Most of All Liberate Yourself In Moderation. First Draft Self, I know there are so many shining, empowering bits of advice that are out there when it comes to kicking off the creative process. Explore, experiment, don’t organize, risk, race! These are just a few. All of this advice wants to help you get through that first major challenge of writing to the end. But liberating yourself too much in your first draft is the equivalent of drinking way too much at a party – it’s going to create a bad time for your future self when the party is over. Revision is slow, it’s tedious, it’s picky, and frankly there’s not a lot that can be done to change that except for one thing that’s in your hands: a strong first draft. By moderating how much you risk, race, or experiment, you can literally create an easier future for yourself when the time to revise arrives. While it may seem counterintuitive in the loose world of first draft writing to tighten the reigns a little, doing so is the best thing you can do to make sure your Revision Self makes it to ‘The End’ just like you did.
Is anyone else out there facing all the challenges that revision can bring? If so, what bit of advice would you give your First Draft Self? Please write it below in the comments! Chances are, that advice that you would give yourself is great advice for any writer.