Novel Writing,  Revision

The Art of the Draft

Because writing is writing is writing is writing!

When you first make that enormously huge decision that you are going to write a novel, you’re not really just writing a novel. You’re committing to drafts, edits, multiple revisions and eventually, a finished novel. Any piece of writing comes with a certain amount of expected revision, especially when you’re just learning the craft, but without a doubt, the novel requires the most. And why?  Because it is the longest.

Before I delve in too much deeper, I’m going to back-track a bit. What is a draft? Why edit? What will this process do for your writing project? While for some of us, the answer might be obvious, there’s still interesting conversations to be had, like how different isn’t always better.

What is a draft?

A draft is one version of your story. Whether you write with an outline or not, the first version of your story will likely not be the spitting image of what you’d hoped for. Drafting is a process of playing with individual scenes, excerpts, sentences, chapters, and so on, to try to better capture the story you are trying to tell. Maybe in one version of a chapter you wrote, all the right things happen to lead into the next chapter, but the emotional notes aren’t hitting the way you’d hoped. A revision where you focus on drawing out the emotional tension in the scene might get you closer to achieving the moment within your novel that you’d hoped for.

It may take several revisions to get the scene right. It may mean revising the scene and coming back to it at a later date to further revise. Some element of revision will require seeing your work with fresh eyes. To do that, I’m pretty sure a month is the unofficial standard amount of time to wait. Though of course that will all depend. If your writing feels too fresh in your memory, it may be too soon fairly revise it. I have a relatively short memory. Give me two weeks and I’ll have trouble remembering the finer details of it. A month though is enough time for me to return to it as though it were written by someone else. It’s all about how to trick yourself into being objective as you edit.

Do you always need to revise?

Yes and no. Most of the time, your story is not perfect on its first run. It might be pretty good or satisfying, but as a writer, I feel like we should always be asking how could this be better? It might be a matter of finding ways to raise the stakes, escalate tension, draw out more of an emotional impact- there’s almost always something.

I do not revise every single thing I’ve ever written. Sometimes I’ll write something and I won’t want to return to it again. If I don’t want to return to it, I probably don’t have any plans or ambitions for it. I won’t try to publish it or get it out there in any way. There are a few things I have never revised that I really could have revised. In this one instance I’m thinking of, I liked the story. It was an emotional story. It made a few of the friends I showed it to tear up. I showed it to my grandma and she said it was the best thing I’d ever written and that might be true.

While the story, the plot, the pacing all worked, I would be lying if I didn’t think revision could have made it better. I could pick it apart sentence by sentence. Some of the sentences were bad. It wasn’t about what I was saying in those sentences, but their sound. They sounded rough. One paragraph was very choppy and with a few simple tweaks it could have made it read so much more smoothly.

If I’d put in that work, what was already a good story could have been a great story. This is why we revise.

Different isn’t always better.

I mentioned this earlier, but it deserves some explanation. Some writers I know get a little wild with their edits. That’s not always a bad thing, but be wary. Sometimes one or two small changes can end up being very large changes and it’s not a new draft they’re writing, it’s a new book. With some of these slightly more wild revisions, sure it’s different, but is it better? I don’t know. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. The only thing I can be certain of is that it is a lot more work.

The Draft: An Overview

Drafts, for me at least, are meant to be fun. In early drafts especially, you’re painting the world of your story in fast broad strokes. There might be inconsistencies, scenes where characters act completely ridiculous, or wild reactions that will have to be edited out later. In drafts, you’re learning who your characters are. You get to watch them take shape before your eyes and as you go, you learn who they are, what they’d do or wouldn’t do, and how the world they live in works.

Drafts are a place to take on dares. Try something that excites you to write. Make bold moves. Dare to write your scenes badly. Because of the drafting process, you can worry less about the final product and see what you can get away with. If you wrote one scene that really just doesn’t work, all you have to do is back track and try again.

There are so many ways to write a novel. The process of drafting, writing and rewriting scenes and chapters, again and again is a method that makes sense to me. It’s a way to write and take risks and tell yourself, when you’ve finished a scene, you’re not really done yet. You will come back and polish it again. Any scene that doesn’t work now can eventually work later. No project is hopeless, just a work-in-progress.

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