Picture this: you’ve just finished your manuscript. Oh joyous day! Whether a full length novel or short story or picture book manuscript, you lean back in your chair and a proud glow of having actually finished beams around your entire being. You might walk with an extra spring in your step for the next few days. Open doors for strangers. In short, act a lot more generous than you usually are. This is a nice place, isn’t it? A happy, gooey, everything kind of place. And then—cue the creepy pipe organ music—all that euphoria ends and you have to do the R-word. Revise!
Revising your fiction can be more emotionally draining than writing the initial draft. Even though we know revising is an opportunity to improve our work, it still feels daunting and overwhelming. With that in mind, I offer the following thoughts to keep in mind as you approach your first revision:
1. Don’t fall into the perfection trap. While the idea of revising sounds exciting, the reality is that you might hem and haw, stare at the voluminous pages of your manuscript, scroll through them, but resist diving in. Deep down, you want to develop what you’ve already written, yet you can’t seem to edit this beast that took months, more likely years, to create. And that’s because we don’t want to face the idea that perhaps we aren’t as good as we think we are. Asking ourselves to edit our writing means admitting that our manuscript isn’t perfect, therefore, we aren’t perfect. Ouch! Harsh words when it takes so much belief in ourselves to write in the first place. But, here’s the good news: Perfect writing is about as real as unicorns. It just isn’t reality—not for any writer. Even the authors who are our personal heroes and make it seem so incredibly easy. In truth, they wrote junk. They revised that junk until it gleamed. There’s no other way to do it. So take that shackle off your neck and sigh with relief—nobody expects you to write perfectly out of the gate because it simply doesn’t exist.
2. You must read your first draft with gentle eyes. My experience with first draft revisions always goes the same way. The writing I thought was shiny and fresh is really like a dull, dumb rock sinking the entire manuscript. And then doubt sets in, sabotaging any attempt at revising. However, I’ve learned a trick that side-steps the bad feelings—read your first draft with gentle eyes. Gentle eyes are put on just like glasses, only instead of improved eyesight, you see your work with more compassion. Compassion allows you to forgive the flaws within your manuscript and accept it’s a work in progress, not a final product. Once you’ve read gently, you’ll be better prepared to get started on that revision.
3. Be a warrior. When you’re feeling down about that dull writing, remember how far you’ve come. The chapters you’ve conquered, the hard decisions you’ve made, the sacrifices you’ve endured to have a finished draft in your hands. Revision requires the same mindset. Remember, warriors don’t politely knock on the door and ask for permission—they act, they fight. If you aren’t sure how to start, ask for help. If you know where your work suffers, work on the fix. Just don’t give up. Keep fighting.
4. Celebrate the small victories. All creative endeavors are messy knots of ideas; your job during the revision is to tame them. Nothing feels as great as the a-ha! moment when you make an improving change to a character or tighten up subpar dialogue. Through these edits, your work gets better because you weed out the uncertainty and hone in on what you truly want to say. Celebrate these wins. Use the victories as fuel to keep the revision fire burning.
5. Don’t fear the delete key. When you put your work on a pedestal, you’ll become too scared to cut it down. Reality check: your manuscript isn’t human. It’s words. You can delete a word in less than two seconds and replace it with something better. I once deleted 60 pages from a story because it wasn’t working, and wow, was it painful, but in truth, the result was progress. Even when you move backward, you’re truly moving forward. If you don’t prune away the bits that are killing the rest of the story, it won’t be able to grow.
As you sit down with your first draft, remember that revising isn’t a four letter word. This is your opportunity to turn your writing into a version that’s closer to your vision. With every edit, you’re improving the story.
What’s your revision pep talk? How do you survive the dreaded first draft revision?