The endless process of revision

Perry White, Editor

Jackie Cooper as Perry White in Superman (1978). This is what the editor in my head looks like. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

One day in grad school, a professor was trying to make a point about the importance of editing and asked me how many drafts of a certain assignment I had written before turning it in.

I knew what she wanted to hear. As one of her favorite students, I was supposed to corroborate her recommendation to complete multiple drafts. But the truth was, I hadn’t. The assignment I turned in — the piece she loved so much — was a one-off: One draft and done.

But I couldn’t tell her that. I didn’t want to contradict her in front of the class. So before I answered her, I thought for a moment about what went in to that “first draft” I had turned in.

Here’s the answer (more or less) I gave to the class:

I revise as I write.

Every time I sit down to work on something, I reread what I’ve already written. For short stories and poetry, I might start from the beginning. For longer pieces, it may be the start of the previous chapter or whatever I wrote the previous day. But I always approach my writing first as an editor, looking at it with fresh eyes. Once I’ve made sure what came before is clear, I start writing more.

And the next time I pick up my pen — or sit down at the computer — to write, I start the process over again.

Nowadays, editing is such an integral part of my writing process, I don’t think about it unless I’m working off of someone else’s notes. Then I always save my original draft and start a new one, out of fear that a paragraph I cut or a favorite line that I change may be lost forever.

I like to start off each session with the skeptical eye of an editor, looking for the pitfalls in the narrative and reminding myself of the seeds I planted along the way. It’s a lengthier process.

It also goes against the spirit of NaNoWriMo, and just about every other bit of writing advice I’ve ever read. Stephen King recommends writing “with the door shut,” keeping your editor away until you’re done writing. I prefer to work in tandem with my editor, revising as I go along.

However you do it — whether you choose to write first and edit later, or edit as you go — keep your editor’s hat handy. No first draft is good enough. Revise, revise, revise.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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