When I first said, “I want to be a writer,” I took oodles of creative writing classes that incorporated “workshopping,” a process in which each student shares a draft and the group critiques it. After all the students had offered feedback, the instructor invariably would say, “I think your story starts on page three; cut pages one and two and rewrite from there.”

You mean I spent all that time and effort on those words and now I have to cut them? And write more??

This fond (!) recollection came to mind several times recently after a series of conversations about rework and revision. I kept fielding questions like these:

  • I have 30k words, but they don’t feel right. Should I keep going with my current outline, or restructure now?
  • This is all the right information, but it’s dull and uninspiring. What do I do?
  • It’s the right content, but it doesn’t get to the key points fast enough. How do I fix it?

Writing makes people nervous: Am I doing this right? What if I get it wrong?

Before we get too worked up here, let’s take a refresher on the writing process. Then I’ll give you some (always optional) advice to keep in mind as you revise your manuscript and nudge it closer to a finished work. Trust me—it’s going to be OK!

The writing process

In any writing project, you go through several stages:

  1. Ideate – “I have a brilliant idea to write…something.”
  2. Draft – “Let’s get this baby on the page!”
  3. Revise – “Um, that doesn’t look like what I intended. Let me try again…” (And again…and again…as necessary.)
  4. Edit – “Now I’ve got the gist of it; it’s time to hone the language.”
  5. Proof – “Woot! Time to look for the last little mistakes and put this baby to bed!”

(Want more explanation? Try this article: Freshen Your Eyes; It’s Time to Revise.)

Depending on the piece of writing and your skill and experience, sometimes you speed through the stages, sometimes you slog through them.

The writing advice

As I scribbled page after page of invaluable (!) wisdom in my notebook draft of this post, I realized most of my advice on writing and revision came down to three things: 1) lower your expectations, 2) there isn’t one right way, and 3) pay attention to your gut.

Lower your expectations (for your first draft)

IMHO revision might be the most important stage of the whole writing process. Revision is the fix-it-up stage, the get-it-to-work stage. But you have to get through the first draft to get there. How do you do that? Simple. In your first draft, expect bad. Expect really, really bad, and then you won’t be disappointed.

Anne Lamott, in her classic book on writing, Bird by Bird, extols the virtue of the “shitty first draft.” (Her term, not mine!) When writing a first draft, turn off your internal critic, and write messy, ugly, horrible sentences, because if you don’t, you’ll have nothing to work with. (Need a reminder? Type “$H!++Y FIRST DRAFT” in your header so you see it on every single page.)

It’s OK to get the first draft wrong. Expect to get it wrong. The second draft will be better, and the third may even be good. Former Piedmont Laureate Carrie Knowles says when she writes a book, she touches every word at least five times before she’s done.

No one gets the first draft right. Lower your expectations.

There isn’t one right way to write (or revise)

Newer writers often worry about the writing process. How close do I have to stay to my outline? Is it OK to restructure? Am I doing it right?

Here’s the great secret of the writing life: there isn’t one right way to do it. There are useful ways to think about writing—tools and techniques that help some writers. There are more efficient ways to write and less efficient ways, more effective and less effective ways, but even “more” and “less” depend on who you ask.

Your goal is a finished work. The path you take to get there can be your own messy meander. Outline not working for you? Maybe you’re a pantser rather than a plotter. Want to restructure now, in the middle of your first draft? Go ahead. Want to finish the current outline and then rearrange? Great.

Over time, with experience, you’ll find a process that works for you. You’ll recognize more easily when rework is needed. With luck, you might also become more efficient (no guarantee).

There isn’t one right way to write or revise; you get to choose your own way.

Pay attention to your gut (it’s pretty smart)

You wrote your extraordinarily bad first draft and you’ve reached revision. How do you know what you’re doing is actually making it better?

In my experience, I get emotional cues that my revision, restructure, or rewrite is working:

  • The writing flows; the process itself feels easier.
  • I get new ideas; puzzle pieces show up that I’d missed before.
  • I feel more excited or energized by the writing.
  • With restructuring in particular, I feel a kerchunk. The puzzle pieces fall into place and the picture becomes clear.

If I don’t get those feelings, if my Spidey sense is still tingling…well…more revisions.

Pay attention to how you feel about the writing—your gut, while not infallible, is a good indicator.

Feel better?

You are not alone in having a messy process or ugly first drafts or multiple rounds of revisions. Even in this blog post, once I had a draft, I revised it at least three times before sending it to my editor for further improvement. I was able to go through the entire process in a couple days. But large projects requiring wholesale restructuring or major realignment have taken me weeks or months.

Your first draft just gets you started. That initial crummy work is your runway to get in the air. You will cut many sentences, change many words, rearrange many paragraphs. This work is not wasted effort; this work is your creative process.

Stuck in your first draft? Uncertain whether or how to revise? A manuscript critique can jumpstart your progress. Read more on the Book Coaching page, or give me a call at 919.609.2817.